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Like fine wine, great film can improve with age — and that’s certainly the case for Jazz on a Summer’s Day. The 1959 documentary of the previous year’s Newport Jazz Festival, directed by Bert Stern and featuring an eclectic lineup headed by Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson, received rapturous notices upon its original release. But IndieCollect’s 4K restoration, funded by the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress to commemorate the offering’s 60th anniversary, manages to enhance the visual and aural charms of the performances, giving them a striking immediacy.
Rather than simply capturing the artists on-stage, Stern smartly broadened his gaze to encompass the gorgeous Newport, Rhode Island, setting, the concurrent America’s Cup trials, and observations of attendees split between upper-crusters and young hipsters. Some of the imagery is abstract, such as squiggling reflections in the Atlantic Ocean waters that seem to mirror the notes in the Jimmy Giuffre Trio opener “The Train and the River,” while other scenes are hilariously literal. Take the perplexed expression on a gum-snapping attendee’s face as an announcer tries to explain Thelonious Monk’s interest in “the quarter tone, which he doesn’t find in our Western scales.” But once the pianist finishes ripping through a vibrant version of “Blue Monk,” she’s grinning as widely as anyone in the crowd.
[caption id="attachment_35064" align="alignleft" width="768"] Anita O'Day[/caption]
An argument can be made that Stern’s rich color footage is the best we have for every person on the bill: saxophonists Sonny Stitt, blowing at a bluesy peak, and Gerry Mulligan, whose rendition of “As Catch Can” is boosted by trumpeter Art Farmer; singer Dinah Washington, putting a thrillingly personal stamp on “All of Me”; powerhouse belter Big Maybelle, insisting that “I Ain’t Mad at You”; and even a piercingly handsome Chuck Berry, whose rock-and-roll pedigree clearly didn’t concern the fest’s programmers. And that’s not to mention the two numbers delivered by singer Anita O’Day, so vivacious that contemporary viewers may be left wondering why she didn’t become the biggest star in the world, and bandleader Chico Hamilton, drumming with an intensity that slices through the decades.During his spotlight time, Armstrong freely mixes artistry and ebullience, while Jackson mesmerizes with a version of “The Lord’s Prayer” that brings the proceedings to a heavenly conclusion. Shortly thereafter, the words “End of a Summer’s Day” appear on the screen. But thanks to the care taken in burnishing Stern’s magnum opus, Jazz on a Summer’s Day will enchant generations to come. — Michael Roberts