(1960) dir. Bert Stern
After watching Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007), which featured clips from this film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, I didn’t even spend a second wondering why I’d never seen the film and just queued it to the top of my Netflix list. It’s an amazing film, while documenting some amazing jazz legends and the setting for this scene of event, it takes a more Impressionistic approach to documentary, capturing much though not commenting on it greatly nor even trying to fully explain what all it is one is witnessing.
Director Bert Stern films the musicians, the audience, the countryside, the town, children, adults, yachts (the Presidents’ Cup was going on that day, too) and only uses some introductory voiceovers from either the stage or the radio to give any clarity to the specificity of much.
From a pure jazz/music perspective, you’ve got Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, Gerry Mulligan, Big Maybelle, and Louis Armstrong to drop a name or two. I mean, that is pretty much “can’t go wrong” music. And it’s interesting how even at the jazz festival in 1958 the music was already spread out along Blues, Rock’nRoll, and Gospel, and you can certainly hear it all coming and going from one to another in this formative time, leading into Soul and other types of music.
The Impressionistic approach is apt and lovely at times, such as when Stern focuses his camera on the reflecting light on the moving water as a visual dance along to the music played onstage. My one complaint is that during Monk’s one piece, he interposes a radio anouncement about the yacht race. This seems pretty lame.
But he scores big time with O’Day’s performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two”. The whole thing is fascinating, from the faces of the audience in this affluent, white town, the still pre-1960’s America, looking like Jackie Kennedy, pre-Civil Rights Movement, and with a few rock’n’rollers alongside the nattily-clad elite.
But the film is just that, images, music, capturing some amazing artists, a glimpse in time and place. It’s really quite an aesthetically pleasing film, a wonderful picture with music, without too much knowledge, without too much analysis, just eyes and ears opened, drinking in all there is.