Chuck Berry died on Saturday at the age of 90. The legendary guitarist and rock and roll pioneer was gearing up to release CHUCK, his first studio album in 38 years (the record is still due to some time in 2017).
Much has been written about the game changing nature of Bob Dylan’s performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but an arguably more influential show took place in the same town seven years earlier. It was there—at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival—that Berry delivered a historic set that foreshadowed the coming ascendence of guitar-based rock and roll.
Berry’s electrifying rendition of “Sweet Sixteen” was immortalized in the 1959 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which also captured luminaries like Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Giuffre, Mahalia Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan and Anita O’Day. The jazz musicians who accompanied Berry on stage during “Sweet Sixteen” appeared to be varying degrees of amused, though it’s hard to tell if their smiles are grounded in sarcasm or genuine enjoyment (check out the drummer at 2:52).
Regardless, there’s no denying that Berry’s performance is decidedly something other than jazz and that fact was important whether the people who saw him that day knew it or not. Rock and roll had been around in earnest for a few years by the time Berry took the stage in Newport, but reasonable people could have still believed it was a fad. If the old jazz players and aficionados weren’t impressed by his licks and his showmanship, the young folks were a different story.
“When I saw Chuck in Jazz on a Summer’s Day as a teenager, what struck me was how he was playing against the grain with a bunch of jazz guys,” Keith Richards told Rolling Stone. “They were brilliant – guys like Jo Jones on drums and Jack Teagarden on trombone – but they had that jazz attitude cats put on sometimes: ‘Ooh… this rock & roll…’ With ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ Chuck took them all by storm and played against their animosity. To me, that’s blues. That’s the attitude and the guts it takes. That’s what I wanted to be, except I was white.”