Expressions in Blue

illustration by Amanda McCleod

The most established character in the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day is the audience. The camera drifts affectionately over people lounging in chairs gently baked by the sun, listening to the performers with a kind of drowsy sensitivity. You can glimpse the small, musical adjustments of their hands and knees, the shapely moods their faces endure, making them look like expressive kinds of fruit. This is not a typical aesthetic of the music documentary or concert film, where audiences are often spectral or a distinctly secondary focus. In Stop Making Sense, probably the peak expression of the form, the audience is a long shadow of noise, incidental to David Byrne’s exaggerated and significant gestures.

According to his New York Times obituary, Bert Stern, a commercial photographer and one of the directors of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, said “taking pictures had always been his way of seeing people, and even of relating to them in ways he could not otherwise.” Stern films members of the audience with the patience and precision of still photography, so as much as the film is a document of the established jazz performers of 1958, it is more precisely a depiction of the intimate and distracted movements of the Newport Jazz Festival crowd. As Anita O’Day sings gorgeous, condensed phrases into a caged microphone, white feathers blooming from the circumference of her hat, the legs of a man in the audience quake out a rhythm. A woman with a seeming awareness of the camera moodily consumes an ice cream bar.

In one of the many interludes in the film, Stern and his co-director Aram Avakian focus on a group of people dancing to jazz on a roof. A waiter nervously conveys a tray of beer bottles up the stairs. A woman takes delirious, rhythmic sips from her beer and sheds her red cardigan. To her left, a man smokes and registers her movements. Late in the film, Louis Armstrong’s band plays dense and combustible phrases against a vivid red light, and the focus shifts to a man in the audience smoking a cigar and noiselessly snapping along. Danny Barcelona hammers his snare drum and teenagers in the audience seizure in their chairs. Notes transfer from Armstrong’s blooming cheeks into the air. A girl in a blue sweater drags her hand across the length of her face, on which a grin of overwhelming bliss unfolds. Her features seem to drift and lose shape like waves of the ocean.

The ocean is a literal, recurring image in Jazz on a Summer’s Day. The Newport Jazz Festival’s proximity to Easton Bay allows Avakian and Stern to dwell affectionately on the movements of water as they correspond to the movements of the music. Sonny Stitt’s saxophone playing has a syllabic quality; its phrasing doubles and stretches itself, alternately resembling the rhythms of breath and speech. Meanwhile the camera hovers over yachts racing through rifts of blue crystal. Sal Salvador wrings shimmering clusters of notes from the neck of his guitar. Light settles in dense constellations on fractals of water. Avakian and Stern seem interested in both jazz and water as oblique reflections of the floating world, glossy shapes and patterns that mutate as they move into endless variations of themselves.

Another recurring image in Jazz on a Summer’s Day is of a roadster full of musicians playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as they curve indulgently along the roads of Newport. They look as if they’ll spill out of the car at any moment, but their faces are less focused on their distressing velocity than they are pulled toward the elastic, aerial joy of the music. A trombone slide throws nervy vertical shapes in the air. They perform the song in a kind of fractured polyphony, playing radically different musical phrases at the same time, like overlapping yet harmonic dialogues in a crowded bar.

“A man who thinks his music,” Willis Conover announces, introducing Thelonious Monk. “We can’t describe him exactly as daring because I think he is unconcerned with any opposition to his music. He concerns himself with such elements as the quarter tone which he doesn’t find in our western scale. So he’ll strike two adjoining notes on the piano to imply the missing note that’s in between.” Monk, sitting at his piano in a slate grey suit, starts to play the song “Blue Monk” and his chords emerge as unwieldy blocks, falling in strange yet accessible geometries. The camera focuses on his back, rectangular, unyielding. There’s a kind of harmony in the imbalance and asymmetry of Monk’s music, like the organs of a clock moving against each other. The people in the crowd watching Monk seem subtly adjusted by the music and the heat. They concentrate on it, staring a considerable distance into it.

Later in the film the Chico Hamilton Quintet perform, playing dense, dampened rolls on his snare with mallets, over which Eric Dolphy’s flute gently quivers. Sweat dews Hamilton’s forehead as they progress into increasingly opaque, amorphous patterns. Jazz was taking on new shapes in 1958, lingering in its negative spaces. The music produced was a controlled, condensed chaos, players looming behind and ahead of the beat, encompassing it instead of inhabiting it. Things that at first sound wrong or odd generate their own rhythm and language. There are intervals and tonal clusters, notes that imply some sort of dissonance or struggle. As Hamilton’s rolls gather velocity he leans toward his drums, the intensity and proximity blurring the divisions between himself, his instrument, and the red light illuminating both of them.

The colors of Jazz on a Summer’s Day are deeply saturated, making sweaters appear as drifting red bruises. The look of the movie—with its high contrasts and percussive grain—is automatically nostalgic. It feels almost as if the film had entered a sentimental zone immediately after production finished, in the way that you can be nostalgic for the warm, pluralized atmosphere of recent weekend with friends. It’s a faintly accessible, unrepeatable document of the past; if these noises and gestures hadn’t been filmed they would’ve merged tracelessly with the air.

Concert films are intended to capture a specific interval of time where the connection between performer, audience, and material is almost irreducible. The best tend to achieve only two out of three. (Stop Making Sense documents a remarkably symbiotic relationship between material and presentation. The only other concert film I can think of that conveys a completely shared atmosphere between a band, an audience, and a body of work is The Last Waltz.) Jazz on a Summer’s Day, instead, expresses how this connection evolves; energy is continuously transferred from the musicians to the audience, and then from the audience to the musicians, eventually blurring into a near-tangible feeling and pulse. This, incidentally, is the nature of improvisation.