The 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is remembered for its meltdown of Benny Goodman’s band, a Saturday night show featuring rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry, and, of course, the full-length documentary film that covered many of the festival’s terrific moments. Jazz on a Summer’s Day was intended to be a short film but filmmaker Bert Stern shot so much footage that it wasn’t released until 1960. In this excerpt from High Times Hard Times, singer Anita O’Day – at the time battling drug addiction but whose performance is a highlight of the film – describes her own unique experience.
Of [my] four appearances at Newport, 1958 was the watershed appearance. In ’56, we were under-rehearsed. In ’69, it was singing in the rain. In ’79, it was just nice to be back, but 1958 I remember with a lot of heart.
Today there are jazz festivals all over the place, and half the performers aren’t really jazz musicians. In those days, Newport was probably the only great one. When you appeared there, you were among your peers. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Teddy Wilson, all hung around the park, making it an up thing.
I was scheduled for 5 o’clock in the afternoon and I asked myself what to wear. “It’s teatime,” I told the Italian lady who ran a dress shop in Greenwich Village. She brought out this black dress, trimmed with white. We both knew it was right, but I asked what I could wear on my head. She went into the backroom and came out with a black cartwheel, trimmed with white feathers. Both went with my see-through, plastic pumps and for a fun touch I added short white gloves.
Unbeknownst to me, Bert Stern, a famous advertising and fashion photographer, was there with a camera crew shooting a full-length documentary. It had rained, and if you watch closely you can see me scrape the mud off my show as I start up the first step toward the stand. Bert Block of Associated Booking asked John to get me to sign a release to allow them to film my set. John signed it and never brought the subject up.
So to me this was just a swinging gig, not a turning point in my career. Performing in the afternoon was a bonus, because I could see the audience. I spotted Chris Connor out there. That was good, because I can make my performance the way I want it to be when I know the audience digs what I’m doing and I can relate to them.
I was high as a kite, but I was really functioning when we swung into the first of the nine numbers. (Incidentally, it was John Poole on drums, not Max Roach as usually assumed.) Metronome called me “the festival’s outstanding act.” Esquire said I was the hit. All I knew was that I began working to a rather apathetic audience, but they responded quickly and by the end of the nine-tune set I really had them. In those days we’d just begun doing “Tea for Two” as a fast tune, and it was as fresh to us as to the audience. There was a big reaction, a lot of applause at the end of the set. In a club I’d have given more, but at a festival you take your bow and get out of the way so they can bring on things for the next group.
It seems to me there’s no better example of not knowing when Lady Luck is going to touch you on the shoulder than this Newport gig. Bert Stern was shooting the whole set, but that didn’t mean they’d use any of it. Also, they were using sixteen tracks and it took them almost a year to edit and coordinate the sound and the images. I didn’t have much faith in the commercial appeal of a documentary called Jazz on a Summer’s Day. In fact, I could have bought a full share for $200 and passed it up.
Then suddenly, I began hearing from everybody about the picture, and especially about my two spots, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” Newsweek ran a lovely photo of me along with a rave review. The New York Times reported – and I quote – “Anita O’Day, making mincemeat of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and ‘Tea for Two’ is as vivid and insinuating as is Mahalia Jackson booming ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’”
The moviegoing public who had only heard my records or read about my problems got a good look at me, and for the first time they had an image to go with the sound. I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve concluded that the fact I looked so together after all the horrendous things they’d read about me going through caught their imaginations. If there is a legend, as writers keep insisting, I think it began with Jazz on a Summer’s Day. I know the film made me a star singer in Japan and paved the way for international tours. The film and Voice of America broadcasts created a demand for my services abroad.
Excerpted from High Times Hard Times, by Anita O’day with George Eells
From the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Anita O’Day sings “Tea for Two”