George Shearing: George in Brazil

The producers of this CD faced a Hobson's choice. In Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, the sequence "George in Brazil" runs slightly more than two minutes. Even at that, it's only a fragment of the original performance. To make matters worse, the soundtrack's first 40 seconds contain voiceovers that for technical reasons could not be erased from atop the underlying music. The dilemma, then, was whether to retain the voiceovers, to which musical purists would surely object, or trim the track to a scanty 1½ minutes. The producers elected to trim.

Bad decision. Of course, the voiceovers are still in the movie. But missing from the CD is the delightful Donna Larsen, roving radio reporter. "What do they say," Donna asks her unseen listeners rhetorically, "the joint is really jumping? I think that's kind of passé by now." If not, it became so at that moment. She goes on to interview NJF co-director Elaine Lorillard, then married to a descendant of Pierre Lorillard, founder of the Lorillard Tobacco Company. Only a year earlier, Lorillard had introduced its best-selling Newport brand of menthol cigarettes. "I brought along a heavy leather coat," gushes chatterbox Donna, "and I don't think I'm going to need it at all." Mrs. Lorillard, her upper-crust baritone hinting that she may have already smoked a few too many packs of her family's products, readily concurs. "No, I don't think so, either." Naturally she pronounces it eye-ther. "I have a sweater that I've tucked away in my bag."

Believe it or not, this banal banter is actually more entertaining than "George in Brazil," which so belabors a simple vamp that you wish Elaine Lorillard had tucked away some extra chord changes in her bag, right next to that sweater she didn't need.

April 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mahalia Jackson: The Lord's Prayer

According to British scholar Martin Halliwell's American Culture in the 1950s, most reports identified gospel singer Mahalia Jackson as the star of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. In particular, Professor Halliwell cites "The Lord's Prayer," with which she closes Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the '58 NJF. "Jackson's contralto voice and religious devotion," Halliwell contends, "is a powerful spiritual counterpoint to the secular coolness of the Festival's jazz rhythms."

Miss Jackson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as The Jackson Five (perhaps voters thought she was related?), seems to have been all things to all people. It's a stretch, however, to contrast her indisputably powerful spiritual force with "the secular coolness" of Newport '58. The NJF's marquee that year boasted such certifiably hot performers as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Maynard Ferguson (whom few would mistake for Chet Baker). Even such cool pioneers as George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan appear in the film serving hot fare—Shearing's Latin-jazz "George in Brazil" and Mulligan's frenetic "As Catch Can." Another '50s cool figure, drummer Chico Hamilton, is represented by "Blue Sands," an exotic drum feature more ethereal than secular. Among the dozen headliners in Jazz on a Summer's Day, only the Jimmy Giuffre 3 can legitimately be characterized as embodying "secular coolness."

In any case, Mahalia Jackson didn't so much contrast with preceding acts in Jazz on a Summer's Day as culminate a head-spinning hodgepodge running the gamut from Louis Armstrong's "When the Saints Go Marching In" and collegiate Dixieland from Eli's Chosen Six (which included future avant-gardist Roswell Rudd playing tailgate trombone) to Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk." On the heels of this incoherent mishmash, a soothing gospel song was as welcome as the calm after a storm.

Yet without impugning Miss Jackson's devoutness, there remains a tinge of Show Business in all this, as if Jazz on a Summer's Day had been stage-managed by CBS-TV's reigning ringmaster of masscult entertainment, Ed Sullivan. Ending a jazz film with The Gospel According to Mahalia was equivalent to following an Alaskan dancing bear, a Catskills comic and a troupe of Chinese acrobats with an aria from some hefty coloratura soprano on loan from the Metropolitan Opera. This, we suspect, was NJF impresario George Wein's calculated showman's piety capping the secular crassness of a Really Big Shew.

April 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Rockin' Chair

The costliest part of Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's $115,000 documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, was Louis Armstrong's lofty $25,000 fee. Stern rationalized thus expending 20% of his budget because Louis was (a) the biggest star on hand and (b) the most important artist in jazz history. It's hard to quarrel with Stern's rationale. But as with Ken Burns's epic documentary Jazz (2001), devoting so much of one's resources to an overarching colossus necessarily meant skimping in other areas. (There is another, equally telling parallel between Bert Stern and Ken Burns. Each was a non-jazz fan who relied on musical advice from a single source—for Stern, it was Columbia Records executive George Avakian, and for Burns, Wynton Marsalis. At the mercy of one sage apiece, the filmmakers virtually guaranteed errors of omission.)

Still, it would take a heart of granite to deny the timeless and universal appeal of "Rockin' Chair" as rocked and chaired (no doubt for the umpteenth time) by Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden. At $25,000, this was a bargain.

April 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chico Hamilton: Blue Sands

"Blue Sands," composed by flutist/saxophonist Buddy Collette for the original Chico Hamilton Quintet (1955), was part of a long tradition of jazz exotica dating at least as far back as Ellington's "Caravan" (1936). In 1956, Collette recorded an especially insinuating "Blue Sands" with The Lighthouse All-Stars, featuring Bob Cooper's atmospheric oboe. In Chico Hamilton's band, however, "Blue Sands" became a set piece showcasing the leader's mallets on tom-toms, where he would tenaciously repeat a single rhythmic pattern, maintaining hypnotic interest merely by varying dynamic level. This display would go on at length and, like all drum solos, was fascinating to watch but less entrancing on a record, absent its visual flair.

By 1958's Newport Jazz Festival, where "Blue Sands" was preserved for posterity in filmmaker Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Chico Hamilton must have performed this tune hundreds of times, necessitating untold thousands of repetitions of that single rhythmic pattern. Amazingly, under the circumstances, the piece retains considerable excitement. Moreover, it served as an icebreaker for such later explorations of monotony as John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" (1960). Casually listen once or twice, and you won't get it. Put it on automatic repeat, and gradually—indeed, almost imperceptibly—you'll be as surely sucked in as a probe approaching a black hole. And we all know what lies at the center of a black hole. Blue sands.

April 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Chuck Berry: Sweet Little Sixteen

Impresario George Wein believed that if each major jazz style (traditional, swing, modern) could attract a small audience, then a festival presenting all those styles ought to draw decent numbers. Moreover, if the playbill were expanded beyond jazz, why, enough fannies to fill an outdoor venue might materialize! Accordingly, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, subject of Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), booked Hail Hail Rock 'n' Roller Chuck Berry. When the brown-eyed handsome man blew into town in a purple Cadillac with a pair of white girls at his side, he raised more than a few eyebrows. In tony 1950s Rhode Island, purple Cadillacs were considered inexcusably gauche.

Onstage, the Rock 'n' Roller was accompanied, more or less, by a pickup group of Swing Era jazzmen who mostly stood around with thumbs up their behinds looking bewildered and patronizing—the latter being especially unwarranted considering their ineptitude backing "Sweet Little Sixteen," Berry's sly variant of Nabokov's Lolita (1955). Journeyman clarinetist Rudy Rutherford at least tries to get in the spirit, but his strident solo is embarrassing proof that jazzmen were as clueless about youth music as Humbert Humbert was about the laws governing statutory rape.

April 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Big Maybelle: I Ain't Mad at You

In a typically misguided attempt at crossover appeal, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival strayed far afield (and went far awry) with blues shouter Big Maybelle. Judging from Bert Stern's documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), the personable performer pleased the crowd. But of course holiday jazz-fest attendees have never been notably discerning. The ad hoc backup band manages to swing without an arrangement, and Buck Clayton's trumpet solo is presentable enough. Yet there's no escaping the vocalist, who sounds like she'd gargled with Dr?no before stepping onstage. We'll never know how many moviegoers in 1960, or VHS and DVD viewers in subsequent decades, naïvely mistook "I Ain't Mad at You" for jazz simply because it's part of Jazz on a Summer's Day. But this track has less to do with jazz than snowballs do with July.

April 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: Catch As Catch Can

It takes cheek to show up in New England on the Fourth of July sporting a red blazer. Yet as shown by Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Gerry Mulligan had cheek aplenty. Less than two hours' ride from Lexington and Concord, the red-coated redhead charged in leading his pianoless quartet, a formation he'd commanded for most of the 1950s. Significantly, though, this edition was so raw that Farmer, Crow and Bailey had by then engaged in but a single rehearsal with the lanky baritonist. To make matters worse, Mulligan's musical material was as ill-chosen as his uniform color. Disdaining the sound advice of 1957's teen hit "Rock and Roll Music," Mulligan tries to play his tricky, up-tempo original "As Catch Can" too darn fast—Chuck Berry's only kick, after all, against modern jazz. Raggedness predictably ensues. Indeed, a short drum break following Farmer's leadoff solo so boggles the beat that the band sputters like an engine about to stall. Mulligan quickly takes charge, wresting the engine back on track through the sheer willpower of his playing. It's an impressive rescue, but doesn't absolve the redcoat general of under-drilling his green troops. To hear how "As Catch Can" was meant to be executed, check out the same group's spit-&-polish studio performance recorded five months later.

April 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dinah Washington: All of Me

It's easy to see why novice filmmaker (and non-jazz fan) Bert Stern picked "All of Me" instead of a different Dinah Washington number for Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), his documentary of 1958's Newport Jazz Festival. Having belted the opening chorus with customary gusto, Dinah steps aside for most of Terry Gibbs's ensuing solo, only to mischievously butt in near the end for some 4-handed vibes frivolity that's as visually entertaining as it is musically negligible. Strictly for listening, however, this track has less to recommend. Max Roach rushes the tempo as the second chorus begins, and Urbie Green's throwback trombone solo, while technically admirable, makes you wonder why J.J. Johnson wasn't at Newport that year.

Another track from the same day, though, shows Miss Washington at her brash best. "Backwater Blues," a tribute to its composer, Bessie Smith, is Dinah-mite with the fuse lit. Backed only by Roach, bassist West and the extraordinary Wynton Kelly on piano, Dinah does her precursor proud. If Bessie was Empress of the Blues, Dinah was the Doyenne of Delight.

April 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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