The Newport Jazz Festival was created in 1954 by Rhode Island socialites Elaine and Louis Lorillard, and it couldn’t have come at a better time in history. With a few exceptions, the big band jazz scene had waned in the early 1950s and, in its place, smaller groups and solo performers took centre stage, which suited the nature of a festival perfectly, and Newport achieved immediate success. By its fifth edition, the talent lineup reflected Newport’s status as one of the pre-eminent music festivals in the US. Photographer Bert Stern and director-editor Aram Avakian’s film of the 1958 iteration of the festival captures many of the key performances across its four-day affair. Performers included Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan and Art Farmer, Chico Hamilton and Eric Dolphy, Anita O’Day, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong and the extraordinary Mahalia Jackson, who would go on to give one of the most moving performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, featured in the documentary of that event, Summer of Soul. A key element of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which would come to inspire subsequent concert films, was its focus on the audience. Through cutaways interspersed throughout the performances, the filmmakers present a time capsule of the US as it edged towards the New Frontier of the Kennedy era. It was this moment – the hope of change – that so many jazz artists had been pushing towards. The resulting combination of performance and observation makes Jazz on a Summer’s Day one of the greatest concert documentaries ever made.
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