Part concert documentary, part pop-cultural time capsule, Bert Stern's Jazz on a Summer's Day chronicles the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival with an approach as deceptively relaxed, even impulsive, as the music itself. Still photographer Stern sidesteps more formal documentary conventions such as narrative voiceovers to wander purposefully from festival stage to boarding-house jam sessions, taking in the parallel color and motion of the America's Cup preparations when he isn't capturing rich color footage of the performances and the celebratory mood of the concertgoers. In the process, he documents American jazz at a notably golden moment in its development--diverse, adventurous, and still broadly popular, this was jazz not yet under the shadow of rock and youth culture, played by an integrated artistic community a few short years away from social and political turmoil that would boil divisively to the surface during the '60s. To say Stern was rolling film in a jazz Camelot is overstatement, but only slightly so.
Stern's circular approach and wonderful eye achieve a breezy languor at the expense of more comprehensive coverage of the festival's bumper crop of strong jazz, blues, and gospel musicians. Perhaps inevitably, the camera lingers on Louis Armstrong, Anita O'Day, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, and George Shearing. Avid fans of later styles may be frustrated by the fleeting glimpses of other musicians such as Eric Dolphy and Art Farmer, or the honor roll of classic jazz stylists whose Newport sets weren't included in the film, but such omissions seem forgivable, if not necessary, to Stern's serendipitous design. --Sam Sutherland
The DVD release benefits from a crisp remastering of Stern's original cinematography, which captures often vivid, highly saturated colors. The 5.1 audio mix, apparently pulled from monaural elements, opens up the sound without attempting a more precise directional presentation. Menu options include chapter access to individual performances, a complete festival playlist, Web links, and a 30-minute interactive documentary with director Stern, including additional scenes. --Sam Sutherland