The best jazz documentary just got better
Turn a fashion photographer loose on the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, and what do you get?
- Lots of artsy-fartsy shots of sea, sail, and sun;
- Lots of “let’s make fun of the audience” shots of fat men in bathing suits (why don’t people like that just stay home?), chicks squinting in the sun, and guys scratching themselves;
- And (fortunately) lots and lots of great jazz.
Louis Armstrong, Bob Brookmeyer, Buck Clayton, Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Giuffre, Chico Hamilton, Jim Hall, Mahalia Jackson, Jo Jones, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Sonny Stitt, Jack Teagarden, and many others are on hand to smother and ultimately overwhelm director Bert Stern’s penchant for aesthetic excess.1 Nearly all the performances caught here are outstanding, but three are unforgettable:
- Anita O’Day, definitely too haute to handle in white gloves and a “ladies who lunch” hat, having her way with “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.”
- Louis Armstrong, cutting through the kitsch that often marred his later performances with a stunning version of “Up a Lazy River.”2
- Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, delivering an all-mighty “Didn’t It Rain?”
Jazz on a Summer’s Day is both fascinating and frustrating. Along with all the timeless jazz on the soundtrack, we have plenty of dated attitude from the director. Instead of using the extra DVD space to give us additional footage, we get Stern rapping about what a genius he was – “It was my idea to shoot the sailboats. They wanted to break up the footage of the girl in the red sweater chewing gum, but I refused.” (What difference did it make?) Most unforgivable of all was the decision to paste a radio announcement by the Coast Guard of the start of the America’s Cup race on top of Thelonious Monk’s solo. Mr. Stern, what in the hell were you thinking?
The picture quality of the DVD is spectacularly better than the VHS version. The sound quality on both is excellent. The film’s soundtrack was taken directly from the festival’s audio system, so there are no problems with balance or crowd noise. The DVD system, which lets you skip back and forth between “chapters,” is ideal for a film like this. You can reach your favorites immediately, and pass entirely on the few sessions that haven’t aged well – notably, the thudding blues of “Big Maybelle” and some pretentious exotica from Chico Hamilton.
Stern shot hundreds of hours of film, but may have been restricted by copyright as to what he could release.3Generally, the selections are excellent, but having been given so much, one can only want more – more selections and more shots of the artists rather than the crowd. After all, we already know what we look like. We come to see the people who look like the way we wish we were, instead of the way we are.
It is, remarkably, Anita O’Day who steals the show from all the assembled talent. She started out in the forties as a big-band singer with Gene Krupa’s band, scoring with novelty numbers like “Let Me Off Uptown” and “Thanks for the Boogie Ride.” Anita’s so charming here it’s painful to note that she had a needle in her arm. She almost drank herself to death in the forties, and switched to heroin, so she says, to cut her liver some slack. Despite her addiction, she cut a series of superior albums with Verve in the fifties, on which her fame largely rests,4 although virtually everything she ever recorded in now available on CD. Although sometimes too mannered for my taste – misguided homage to her idol, Billie Holiday5– she was a classic “singer’s singer,” justly proud of her musicianship. She’s still performing in her early eighties.
The search engines at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble now provide extensive information on albums, allowing you to sample cuts on many CDs, and read reviews as well. The amount of information may be a little overwhelming for a newcomer, but Barnes & Noble in particular is a jazz lover’s delight, thanks largely to the efforts of Scott Yanow, whose knowledge of recorded jazz appears to be almost without limit.
- A young Chuck Berry sneaks in the picture too, singing “Sweet Little Sixteen” and apparently passing himself off as a blues singer. [↩]
- Armstrong first recorded the tune back in 1931. It’s amazing how closely this 1958 version tracks the original. [↩]
- Surprisingly little of the jazz from Newport ever ended up on LP. However, the entirety of Mahalia Jackson’s set was released, and is available now on CD. There are also a number of videos dedicated to her work. [↩]
- Heroin addiction almost killed her in the sixties, but she managed to pull herself together and enjoyed years of drug-free success in the seventies. She tells her story in High Times, Hard Times, a sometimes fascinating, often sad “Behind the Music” tale for the Swing to Bop era. O’Day quit school at 13 to pursue a career as a marathon dancer (she was flunking everything except Commercial Geography, so what the fuck?). Incurably reckless, she racked up 14 abortions and two stretches in the slammer for possession, among other things, before she decided the party was over. Naturally, it took a near-fatal overdose to open her eyes. Joe Glaser, her manager, told her “Anita, you’ve got a million dollars’ worth of talent and no class.” If you don’t know what marathon dancing was, check out They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with Jane Fonda and Gig Young. [↩]
- According to O’Day, the few times they met, Holiday ignored her completely. However, they did shoot up together once. Anita, not easily shocked, was stunned by the size of Billie’s jones. [↩]