On Aug. 20, 1977, NASA launched space probe Voyager 2 with the expressed mission of exploring the outer planets of the solar system and transmitting the discoveries back to Earth. What, and whom, might it find out there? If Voyager 2 should encounter any life forms on its mission, then it should also carry a message to let them know who we are and what we can accomplish. A message—composed of sound and images—was etched into a golden record that Voyager could carry throughout the heavens: Greetings, salutations, and the music of Earth. Everything from classical to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
One year later, Steve Martin (playing a psychic of Saturday Night Live) announced that Voyager 2 had been intercepted by intelligent life. The aliens had listened to the record and only had one reply: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
You might be surprised to see Berry rocking out to “Sweet Little Sixteen” in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, but just like Martin’s aliens, he’ll have you tapping your toes in no time.
Not a Berry fan? How about Louis Armstrong and that joyous smile of his? Did any performer enjoy the stage the way Armstrong did? How about Anita O’Day, she’s here scatting away in a fabulous black and white ensemble and fire apple red lipstick. Even Thelonious Monk, cool as a cucumber and twice as hip, seems to be enjoying his time in the hot summer sun.
Shot during the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, Jazz On a Summer’s Day is 85 minutes of unadulterated joy. It was directed and shot by photographer Bert Stern, and is his lone filmmaking credit—he packed enough in he didn’t need to take another crack at it. That’s evident if you watch the doc twice: First time around you’re impatiently waiting to get to the goods. The movie is kind of like the sparse afternoon crowds, not quite ready to settle in, still wandering the grounds looking for another drink and maybe a snack or two before the headliners take the stage.
But on second viewing, it’s these moments where Stern’s doc soars. In addition to the fest, Stern photographs the America’s Cup yacht race just off the coast and people arriving for the show. It all comes easily and unexpectedly. A jaunty Dixieland number gets teenagers dancing on the rooftops of shingle-style houses that have seen better days. Downstairs a waiter wrestles with a case of Rheingold beer. Sailboats cut across the water, and everyone seems to be having a dandy time.
Then the music cuts to a cellist, a man rehearsing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. Outside, a young boy drinks from a bottle of Coca Cola. A little girl pushes a stroller through a field while wearing women’s high heels. The waiter, all out of Rheingold, rests in the back, his shirt soaked in sweat. Beer bottles roll around on the deck while a drunk staggers off into the shore. The cellist stops to light a cigarette and then picks up without missing a note. The poetry of life presented in image and sound.
Sterns finds these moments and more. It’s not narrative he’s after, but snatches of life—fragments of ideas strung together by music.
Bach was also featured on Voyager’s golden record alongside Berry and Beethoven. Too bad NASA didn’t send a couple of reels of film out there into the unknown. I bet the aliens would have gotten a kick out of watching Berry swinging his hips while a bunch of beatniks get their dance on. And if they could have seen Mahalia Jackson belt one out, they would have known, deep down inside, we’re not half bad.
Jazz On a Summer’s Day was digitally restored from a 35mm negative cut original and 35mm interpositive by IndieCollect @ Laboratory for Icon and Idiom, Inc. It is available to rent in virtual theaters from Kino Lorber.
Jazz On a Summer’s Day (1959)
Directed by Bert Stern
Written by Albert D’Annibale and Arnold Perl
Produced by Bert Stern
Kino Lorber, Not rated, Running time 85 minutes, Virtual theaters.