In an age when mass gatherings more often than not suggest the social upheaval of the last two years, it is helpful to be reminded that not all teeming multitudes are created equal.
Nowhere is the contrast between the unruly masses of the present and the pacific crowds of the past better illustrated than in filmmaker Bert Stern’s 1959 concert documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day. This classic, prize-winning film (available in a 4K restoration on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber) is a dazzling cinematic chronicle of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, which boasted an impressive roster of performers, including Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Anita O’Day—all, by now, long-deceased.
Also gone is the culture in which that year’s festival took place. Despite the abundance of talent that performed in Newport, Stern’s camera spent as much time, if not more, trained on the spectators who showed up to bop their heads, snap their fingers, and tap their feet. Few films have ever more vividly illustrated the effect performers have on their audience. Many concert films depict concertgoers as an indistinct mass—a great swarm that reacts to every hip swivel of Mick Jagger—or only show a handful to stand in for the many, such as the adolescents who shriek as the Beatles sing “Tell Me Why” in Richard Lester’s masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night. By contrast, Jazz on a Summer’s Day makes us familiar with a wide cast of nameless characters soaking in the goings-on in Newport sixty-four summers ago: the young woman in the matching red hat and cardigan, the man keeping cool with a paisley handkerchief spread out over his head.
The film’s consistent focus on the faces in the crowd reveals something that would surprise none of us but is startling to see nonetheless: namely that, during the second term of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, ours was a country that still valued manners, courtesy, and a certain decorous kind of joy.
In the lost world conjured in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, hot weather does not preclude a man from wearing a coat and tie, every third woman seems to be wearing a strand of pearls, and the relatively few audience members in possession of cameras have them firmly fixed on the performers, not, as would be the case today, on themselves. Although we cannot know for certain whether recreational drugs were used at any point among the crowd, the presence of young children suggests that the aroma of marijuana was not pervasive.
With his background as an acclaimed photographer—his subjects included, famously, Marilyn Monroe—Stern, who was born in 1929 and died in 2013, delights in picking out audience members who intrigue him. Some in attendance seem to be attuned to a particular performer—Armstrong and his trumpet, Monk and his piano, or O’Day and her scat singing—but others caught the filmmaker’s attention simply because they are intriguing, unusual, or amusing, such as the man in a clerical collar or young woman reading a dime-store copy of the novel Camille.
Crucially, the audience members do not look to be stuffed shirts; after all, these are people who chose to spend their day at a jazz festival, not a ballet or symphony performance. These people are, by the standards of the time, hip; that they nonetheless come across as looking and acting a little conventional is a sign of a society in which norms of behavior and dress were deeply entrenched.
More important, Stern presents the jazz greats on stage in the context of an overall world—one as remote to us as the performers themselves now are. We see not only the crowds who have assembled to hear the music, but those who live, work, or play in Newport more broadly: townspeople who warily regard jazz fiends as smartly attired invaders, and children who merrily cavort in area parks, oblivious to the assorted icons nearby. A rival event, the trials for the America’s Cup sailing race, is seen in the far distance; the yachts bob and tilt amid the pleasantly choppy waters. The point Stern is making is this: Newport does not stop for the festival. The audience may be delighted by O’Day and starstruck by Armstrong, but they don’t mob them like autograph hounds or selfie seekers.
When night comes, red stage lighting gives the performers an otherworldly cast. The late-night performances by Big Maybelle, the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and, of course, Armstrong are among the most electric in the documentary. Then we enter a kind of heaven: The master of ceremonies, Voice of America broadcaster Willis Conover, marks the transition from Saturday to Sunday and the concurrent arrival of the closing act, Mahalia Jackson: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is Sunday, and it is time for the world’s greatest gospel singer.” The casual, unelaborated way that Conover says “it is Sunday” is strikingly powerful. In Newport in 1958, there was no need to further explain the significance of Sunday, or why gospel music—and arguably its greatest practitioner, Jackson—would be appropriate for the occasion.
Seen today, Jazz on a Summer’s Day shimmers with its glimpses of a world in which people, for all their differences, shared so much. When was the last time so many people got together with such geniality and grace?
Peter Tonguette writes from Columbus, Ohio.
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