The Newport Jazz Festival was one of the most important cultural institutions of mid 20th century America. It resuscitated Duke Ellington’s career, and hosted the opening salvo of Bob Dylan’s electric period while affording dozens of musicians an appreciative mainstream audience. Jazz itself was still a ways off from its designation as America’s Classical Music, and events like Newport went a long way to bolstering its credentials.
In it’s first half “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” is as much an advertisement for the Newport community as a historical record of important artists. Jazz never feels like an integral part of Newport, and more like an outgrowth of it’s progressiveness and appreciation of “fun” in all its forms. Sailboats race in the Atlantic, college dorms are simultaneously benign and raucous, the elderly women in the street sing for the cameras. A small, anonymous, jazz band blows through the county on a convertible.
It would be impossible for the filmmakers to know exactly who history would elevate, specifically that Thelonius Monk would warrant more than the few minutes of screen time he’s afforded before cutting to more sailboats, or that the lanky flutist Eric Dolphy would soon greatly eclipse his then band leader Chico Hamilton in terms of regard. But giving ample space to Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Chuck Berry were pretty wise investments in screen time. And if time has mostly passed Anita O'Day, Jimmy Guiffre and the rest, their performances make compelling cases that the quality of their playing was paramount.
As the day turns to night, the concert increasingly becomes the only game in town. The crowd gets a bit younger as the stands fill out.
The headliners live up to their billings, Louis Armstrong seemed incapable of giving a bad performance or even playing with half effort. He spins solos that are the equal of anything he put to record in his career.
Mahalia Jackson, sadly a bit forgotten with the years, lives up to her billing as the world’s greatest gospel singer in a thrilling climax to the evening.