Thursday, April 8, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #30: Jazz on a Summer's Day

US, 1960. Directed by Bert Stern & Aram Avakian.

It may pain me to say that most jazz films suck, but it pains me even more that it's true. This is true of both major subgenres of the jazz film. Fictional/biopic narratives are mostly sabotaged by either B.S. "jazz mythology" and/or non-musician actors miming along painfully with pre-recorded tracks. Documentaries are mostly sabotaged by either B.S. "jazz mythology" or the filmmakers' belief - probably correct - that an audience won't sit still for sustained performance, resulting in voiceovers drowning out music or frequent cutting away from it.

The two greatest jazz features are both documentaries and both are guilty of the faults listed above, but use them in enough moderation that one can forgive them somewhat. Plus both have priceless, compelling, aesthetically interesting footage that gives them a core of real substance. The first is Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, which features the usual talking heads style but is mostly extensive and mostly terrific footage of Monk himself, circa 1967, at close quarters during his day to day life and work.

The other is Jazz at a Summer's Day, a major arthouse title in its day, photographed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Most extant footage of major jazz figures of this vintage is indifferently preserved kinoscopes of television appearances whose master recordings were usually destroyed soon thereafter, if they were recorded at all. Major figures like Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker remain ghosts in these hazy transcriptions. Jazz on a Summer's Day was shot on quality film stock, in beautiful, highly saturated colour, which is perfectly preserved on DVD. The bright, crisp, striking imagery brings these performers to life.

Some not-strictly-jazz performers make appearances (Big Maybelle, Chuck Berry, and a riveting Mahalia Jackson finale), but overall great jazz is the order of the day. The highlights that make this film absolutely invaluable to me:

The film opens with the Jimmy Giuffre trio, with Bob Brookmeyer and Jim Hall playing "The Train and the River", one of Giuffre's loveliest pieces of the chamber jazz so popular at the time this was filmed. Stern betrays his career as an influential photographer by capturing Giuffre and Brookmeyer's subtle interplay in one lovely sustained shot, Giuffre from the side, Brookmeyer head on, whichever player is more dominant (usually Giuffre) receiving the sharper focus.

Thelonious Monk (billed as "Thelonius") follows, for one of the film's major missteps, as Stern cuts away early from visuals of the performance, allowing Monk's music to be accompanied by footage of the concurrent Americas Cup sailing contest tryouts. Colour footage of Monk - especially of this quality - is hard to come by, so it's impossible not t0 be disappointed by the break, even if this performance of "Blue Monk" is the man at his most restrained.

Anita O'Day steals the film. In spite of being in the midst of a brilliant run of records for Verve, O'Day was at the time mostly remembered as the girl singer in Gene Krupa's early 40s big band. Jazz at a Summer's Day ensured her a place in the pantheon, with two glorious small group numbers showing off her impossibly great rhythmic sense. Vocal jazz fans who dwell on the singer's connection with the words tend to disdain O'Day, who functioned more a musician does, breaking up phrases and words to suit her musical conception, not the words of a long-absent lyricist. Stern's cameras assume position to capture the performance from two angles - a side view and a lower frontal placement - that give us iconic views of a genuinely iconic perf0rmance.

Dinah Washington is in terrific form, singing "All of Me" backed by an all-star group featuring a jubilant Max Roach. The vocal is quite wonderful, but most memorable is Dinah's joining Terry Gibbs on vibes for a musical duel, spiritedly pushing each other away from the instrument when it's their turn, both of them having a ball.

Gerry Mulligan's new quartet featuring Art Farmer only had one rehearsal before this gig, and it shows. Farmer's notes are uncharacteristically scattershot, and the tempo is too fast, but the performance is key to understanding what makes jazz so exciting. Musically, the quartet would go on to make much more perfect music, but here, fighting to hold everything together inside Mulligan's challenging conception that discourages glib cliches - and they do hold it together - it makes for absolutely compelling listening. They're all in the moment, thinking quick for solutions and inevitably making it. The way it's photographed, with the intensity on Mulligan's face truly s0mething to behold, enhances the exitement.

Chico Hamilton's quintet with Eric Dolphy is featured twice - once in rehearsal in what was obviously a stifling room, and once at the concert. The concert performance shows Stern's technique at its most dramatic - holding Hamilton in a single, largely unmoving close-up with a blazing red background making him look like his life depends on his subtle drumming keeping him from slipping backwards into the gate of hell. We also get a few precious glimpses of Dolphy, another who we mostly have to rely on blurred video footage to see these days.

Louis Armstrong climaxes the film with some loose, spirited playing with his all-stars, capped by a lovely duet with Jack Teagarden on their showcase piece, "Rockin' Chair". They're caught in another tight closeup that sees them going in and out of focus depending on who's singing, with the immense affection these two men felt for each other radiating from every frame.

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