A Classic Jazz Documentary That Honors and Insults the Art Form (via The New Yorker)

With film festivals, curation is only half the battle; the other half is for the viewer to pick the right films. Even generally mediocre festivals usually have a few excellent movies, just as even superbly programmed festivals are likely to have some weak offerings. That’s why—since no one can see everything—the artistic impression a festival leaves is greatly dependent upon a viewer making good choices.

This is equally true of music festivals, as I was reminded, recently, by a long-awaited viewing of a movie that’s as much of a classic in its genre as it is a rarity: “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” Bert Stern’s documentary of performances from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Several of the performances are among the treasures of filmed music; all of them, whatever their musical merit, are filmed with a rare artistry, a rare attention to making images of music that are themselves musical. Yet the film leaves an impression of misprogramming, condescension, and even willful omission, in the interest of producing a particular image of the Newport Festival and, above all, of jazz over all—an image that corresponds with a skewed image of the United States itself.

The trouble starts at the beginning. The music over the credits is recognizably that of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio (featuring the saxophonist Giuffre with the valve-trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and the guitarist Jim Hall), and the band also appears right after the credits—in a nearly three-minute-long shot of Giuffre and Brookmeyer that’s the longest single shot in the entire film. I find their performance redolent of a desiccated academicism, but even an enthusiast would be hard-pressed to name this group as the one worthiest of the most concentrated visual attention.

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