Jazz on a Summer’s Day review –Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and more shine bright

Powerful musical moments are undercut by exasperating blandness in this rerelease of Bert Stern’s film of the 1958 Newport jazz festival

This rerelease of Bert Stern’s filmed record of the 1958 Newport jazz festival happens to arrive in the UK just after Summer of Soul, about the 1969 Harlem cultural festival, known then as the “Black Woodstock”. Both events and both movies feature the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson – but there the comparison ends. Where Summer of Soul is amazingly vibrant and passionate, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is exasperatingly sedate and restrained and often just bloodless and dull, despite some occasionally intriguing musical offerings from musicians such as Thelonious Monk, George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan; Chuck Berry is there, on his bland best behaviour, and finally we get some powerfully charismatic appearances from Louis Armstrong and Jackson herself.

During the daytime, the movie bizarrely intercuts shots of the musicians on stage with bland B-roll footage of the America’s Cup yachting races taking place nearby – but the wealthy folk’s sport of sailing is about as uncool and unjazzy as it gets, and the juxtaposition is completely baffling. And so are the cutaway shots of the people in the crowd, who very often seem to be an America’s Cup crowd, sedately nodding along or maybe nodding off, or simply looking bored or talking among themselves.

There are so many images like this you might almost suspect the whole thing is a satirical comment on Eisenhower’s US, vaguely becoming aware of the groovy counterculture yet to come. The energy and dynamism of jazz isn’t given a lot of room to breathe here, even if there are moments of musical power.

• Jazz on a Summer’s Day is released on 27 August in cinemas, with a special one-day presentation on 30 August.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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