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Film Review: Jazz on a Summer’s Day

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Anita O’Day belts one out.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Directed by Bert Stern and Aram Avakian

At the Charles Theatre Aug. 3 at 11:30 a.m., Aug. 5 at 7 p.m., and Aug. 8 at 9 p.m.

This isn’t a spoiler: Mahalia Jackson is no joke. Over the course of co-directors Bert Stern and Aram Avakian’s 85-minute documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, a string of indelible jazz artists takes the stage at the four-day event. Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Chico Hamilton, Chuck Berry, Sonny Stitt—all sear themselves into the brain thanks to cinematographer Stern’s imagery, which doesn’t look like a digital-camera effect but is the real effing deal that those instant-nostalgia apps are hijacking. But when Jackson, the gospel queen from New Orleans, comes onstage, she may change your life, if only for a moment.

Newport, R.I., is one of the toniest seaside enclaves in the United States. The town has this aura that wealth isn’t something people strive for but rather are given, like air. This is where America’s wealthiest families built summer homes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and eventually they needed something to do. Hence the Newport Jazz Festival (started in 1954) and the Newport Folk Festival (started in 1959); both have witnessed performances that cast long shadows. Newport is where Bob Dylan went electric. A recording from Newport 1956 offers one of the best examples of Duke Ellington’s tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves exploding with a solo in the middle of Ellington’s orchestra’s rousing “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” It still parts hair.

That some of popular music’s most storied moments took place on stages to entertain America’s idly rich wasn’t lost on Stern, who passed away June 23 at the 83. A veteran fashion photographer—Jazz is his lone feature film—Stern shot footage of a yacht race going on during the festival and the chic audience, clips of which are intercut with performance footage. And it doesn’t take a grad student to recognize that the history of the people who watch the music and the history of the people who make the music are as economically complicated, intertwined, and fraught as the story of America itself.

And, oh yeah: the music just kills. Jazz on a Summer’s Day doesn’t try to tell the musicians’ stories like a conventional documentary, opting instead for a more experiential approach: It’s a snapshot of a time and place. These eyes and ears adore any opportunity to watch Armstrong, who is such a national treasure his face should be on money, not just a stamp. And when Jackson opens her mouth for three songs, atheists momentarily believe in angels.

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