Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 11, 2020 1:59 pm 
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BERT STERN: JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY (1959) 4K Restoration in Virtual Cinema (Kino Lorber)


A historic jazz festival film to be watched with caution

It's an unfortunate habit of mainstream media to treat any older film that's revived with fanfare as a masterpiece. This is a historic musical film, one of the greatest, some say. And maybe it is, as a skillful melding of music and images based around a festival (Jazz at Newport, 1958). And there are some absolutely sublime little bits of editing - of what looks like a beautiful moment in time. But "greatest film of jazz ever made"? No way. The greatest films of jazz are the short ones emceed by Ralph J. Gleason for the San Francisco "Jazz Casual" show in black and white, in particular the one of John Coltrane, because Coltrane is the greatest jazz musician who has ever lived, and this gives us a rare and wonderful uninterrupted performance of the mature Coltrane on film.

I'm more or less in agreement with The New Yorker's, Richard Brody, on Bert Stern's film. His stand is summed up in the title of his 2016 piece about it: "A Classic Jazz Documentary That Honors and Insults the Art Form." Several performances shown in the film (a few; not so many), he says, are "among the treasures of filmed music." Yet Bert Stern and his editors leave "an impression of misprogramming, condescension, and even willful omission." Brody says Stern's film is a great document of the art form but one that "distorts, exalts and diminishes" and even sometimes "unintentionally insults."
I'm not sure it's all that unintentional. It can be observed from the first minute that something is wrong here.

Brody's analysis of the early segment I also agree with. The extended film strip of Jimmy Giuffre that opens with the credits is dull - a bad start, a strange choice for the film's longest single strip of a performance. Next the film virtually trashes one of the undisputed greats of jazz piano and composition, Thelonious Monk, not only cutting his one song, "Blue Monk," to a bare minimum, but intercutting it with views of the America's Cup sailing yacht races going on at the same time - but irrelevant to the jazz festival in just about every way. The film fails to explain the reason why Henry Grimes and Roy Haynes stayed on the stage to play with Monk. It was because they'd just played with saxophonist Sonny Rollins - a jazz giant whose omission from the film is inexplicable. Maybe he didn't fit well with the yachts.

Worse than that is the way Anita O'Day, probably the greatest white female jazz singer, is treated. On the one hand, two of her songs are allowed to play all through. O'Day is beyond impressive, though her subtlety is seriously undercut by the visual interruptions, this time by views of the audience. At first the cameras show people looking bored, chatting, smoking cigarettes, munching on ice cream on a stick. You would not know that this was an audience of jazz lovers. Of course not everyone was one, but the applause at the end of O'Day's "Tea for Two" (and of her set) is enthusiastic. The performance was a triumph. It's said to have marked a peak of her career and to have led to her international reputation.

Not only that, but O'Day's outfit is sublime, high heels, a svelte black dress with elaborate white border at the hem, a wide-brimmed black hat with white feathers, and white gloves: a jazz singer impeccably, but festively, dressed as for a midsummer lawn party, or for New England, where things are a bit more formal. She looks great. She is glamorous, she sparkles, she is right for a summer's day at Newport.

So actually is the audience. This is a stunning record of how very much better Americans dressed, casually, in the late fifties than at any time since. It's dressier, yet summery, chic but comfortable. In fact, I could look at the clothes of the audience members, even the kids, with more unadulterated pleasure than any other aspect of the film - than the undercut performances, or the pretty, but irrelevant shots from the yacht race or other locales.

Things get better after George Shearing (shown too close up, and in an undercut performance) with Dinah Washington, fully celebrated in what seems a complete performance of "All of Me," glorious, buoyant, happy; and the shots of the audience, at night now, moving as Dinah moves, are less obtrusive and more harmonious. Gerry Mulligan next, also goes well.

Numerous other musicians are included; this only describes half the film. We get to see Chuck Berry (in a jazz setting); Chico Hamilton, with Eric Dolphy (perhaps the most advanced and fresh performer); Louis Armstrong, with Jack Teagarden the least challenging). Also appearing are Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, Armando Peraza, and Eli's Chosen Six, a Yale College student ensemble that happened to include trombonist Roswell Rudd,seen playing Dixzieland here, who was to go the other way, and join Archie Shepp.

But as Brody points out, not only does this film make it look like the audience of jazz is predominantly white, but the most challenging aspects of jazz are downplayed, even though they were present at the festival - so that bebop was omitted. Not only does the film omit Sonny Rollins, but, even worse, it leaves out Miles Davis performing with his sextet in a new iteration of that year made up of Miles with Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), John Coltrane (tenor), Bill Evans (piano, replacing Red Garland), and Paul Chambers (bass). Bert Stern & company have erased one of the most important small groups in jazz history.

Also omitted is pianist Mary Lou Williams (playing solo), Max Roach with a quintet including Booker Little (trumpet, replacing the tragically lost great Clifford Brown, who died in two years earlier). All these were the cutting edge of jazz, included in the festival but not the film. The black artists who were provocative and brilliant - left out. The safer ones - included. And that's not right. Jazz is challenging. Jazz is ever fresh. And jazz is African American classical music made very largely for a black audience.

So if you love jazz, if you love concert films, watch this one by all means - but watch it with caution, skepticism, and an awareness that for all its sparkle, it's seriously flawed.

Jazz on a Summer Afternoon, 85 mins., debuted at Venice, Aug. 1959; theatrical US release New York Mar. 1960. other festival showings 2005 and 2009. New IndieCollect 4K Restoration debuted Glasgow Mar. 2020. Starting Aug. 12, 2020 in Virtual Cinemas in a rerelease by Kino Lorber.

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