The Train and the River

It’s not particularly relevant or topical, but I thought I’d put this up as it’s a great favourite of mine. This was the opening set from the classic film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which is about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Beautifully directed by the fashion photographer Bert Stern, this was originally intended to be a drama set against the backdrop supplied by the various concerts, but Stern lost interest in the plot storyline and it was dropped. The final cut of the film released in 1960 is basically a straight documentary about the music festival, and it’s none the worse for that.

Stern’s photography didn’t just capture the diverse personalities of the artists, who range all over the spectrum of Jazz from Louis Armstrong to Thelonious Monk. He keenly observed the audience as the performances unfolded and sprinkled some wonderfully humorous glimpses into the film. In between the music there are also some wonderful impressionistic sequences of yachts racing off the coast of Rhode Island and reflections on the water. I think the film is pure joy from start to finish and I treasure my copy of it on DVD.

The opening track of the film is The Train and the River, by the Jimmy Giuffre three. Jimmy Giuffre was an immensely gifted saxophonist and clarinet player who was also an accomplished arranger and composer who worked for many big bands. His most famous piece as an arranger was Four Brothers which he wrote for Woody Herman’s fantastic saxophone section of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff and Herb Steward. Giuffre was at one stage a very avant-garde musician playing quite challenging material, but in 1958 he had a more accessible style that blended jazz with folk elements, as you can hear from the video.

The other members of the band are the wonderful guitarist Jim Hall and the multi-instrumentalist Bob Brookmeyer who, on this number, plays valve trombone. Notice how they cleverly interchange the lead and rythmic support so you don’t really notice that it’s such a small band. There are studio recordings of the Train and the River, but none of them are anything like as good as this live version. Unfortunately the start of the tune is missing on the video because it was played over the opening titles, but if you want the whole thing just go and buy it!

Jimmy Giuffre died in April this year, before I started blogging, so let this be a belated tribute to him. I also think it’s a fitting way to celebrate the dawn of a new era in American politics with a reminder of the tremendous vitality, creativity and diversity of the nation that brought us jazz and a fervent hope that it will rediscover its true identity in the post-Bush era. Enjoy.

5 Responses to “The Train and the River”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Did they also film the 1956 Newport Fest? This featured one of the most amazing performances ever, Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” in which he let tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves loose for 27 straight choruses in a solo that had the crowd going bananas. A CD of it is easy enough to buy but I’d love to watch it.

    With a few exceptions (Lionel Hampton and some Dave Brubeck) the big band era is about as late as I can listen to jazz. After that it sounds to me like music that is all head with not enough heart. It’s gotta swing!


  2. telescoper Says:

    I don’t think that the 1956 festival was filmed. I have the Ellington concert on LP, though. There’s a point a few choruses into Paul Gonsalves’ solo where you can hear the audience going through the sanity barrier. Apparently it was triggered when a glamorous woman in one of the expensive seats kicked off her shoes and started dancing. It led to one of the most famous examples of spontaneous musical combustion in history. There are still photos of the lady and the crowd, but I’ve never seen a movie.

    But the 1958 Newport festival offers many more treasures to savour. I’m sure you would like the piece that ends “Jazz on Summer’s day”, which is Mahalia Jackson singing the Lords Prayer.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:


    I’d like to watch it, although I don’t think the Lords Prayer is appropriate for a Jazz festival. That’s not because I object to a jazz version (I don’t), but because the audience is captive and cannot be presumed to be Christian. Christianity must never be forced on people; in fact the moment it is, it ceases to be genuine Christianity.


  4. […] A few days ago I put up a short clip of The Train and the River taken from the opening moments of the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. These are the two last […]

  5. telescoper Says:

    I take your point, but I have the same attitude as I would to a performance of the St Matthew Passion. You don’t have to be a christian to recognize it as great music. Anyway, I’ve now put it up
    here .

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