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Film review: 'Jazz on a Summer's Day'


Local music fans sadly missed out on the annual Rochester International Jazz Festival this summer, after the wildly popular event was initially postponed to October from its original June dates, and then eventually cancelled outright. Thankfully the Little Theatre is here to help you scratch that jazz itch, adding the excellent, glowingly restored 1959 documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” to the Virtual Little this weekend.

Directed by photographers Bert Stern and Aram Avakian (who also provided the film’s beautifully percussive editing), the film captures highlights from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, held in early July. Believed to be one of the first concert films ever made, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1999.

With backgrounds in fashion and music photography, respectively, Stern and Avakian have an eye for gorgeous images. With warm, deeply saturated color and lovely close-up camerawork, they film some fantastic performances by jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Giuffre, Chuck Berry, Anita O'Day, and Dinah Washington. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson provides a fittingly memorable closer with her powerful midnight rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Stern and Avakian alternate the acts from the event’s open-air venue, with images from around the city, and periodic cutaways to the America’s Cup yacht race occurring simultaneously in the nearby harbor. The footage is presented without narration or voiceover (aside from an announcer occasionally piping in to announce the next act), so there’s nothing to distract from the music and the joyous mood it brings out in the audience.

If there’s any (minor) complaint I’d have with the film, it’s one inherent in all concert films, which by their nature don’t allow the viewer to decide what to watch and where to focus. I found myself wishing I could see more of each musicians’ act.

Stern and Avakian’s cameras catch plenty of crowd shots, allowing for some excellent people-watching. Observing the spectators dressed in their best late-50s casual dress fashions provides a compelling snapshot of one specific moment in time.

I couldn’t help feeling some pangs of envy watching footage of couples dancing and groups of friends drinking together; of crowds gathered close together without a mask in sight. At the very least, it’s a reminder of what hopefully awaits us all once we’ve passed through the current crisis and finally make it to the other side of this pandemic.

Watching this film might not be the same as being out in our city, cold beverage in hand as you catch an act on Gibbs Street. And while there’s no substitute for what we’ve missed out on, for a brief moment you can almost convince yourself this is the next best thing.

“Jazz on a Summer’s Day”
(NR), Directed by Bert Stern and Aram Avakian
Now playing at the Virtual Little Theatre

Adam Lubitow is CITY's film critic. Feedback on this review can be directed to Rebecca Rafferty, CITY's arts & entertainment editor, at