Anita O’Day: Live at the Newport Jazz Festival 1958

Anita O’Day’s stage surname was Pig Latin for “Dough.” As in money, in that O’Day was always looking for it.

When I mentioned this factoid (factoid in the sense of true, but trivial) to my musically-astute friend, she cracked up, thinking that I meant the musical solfège syllable “Do,” as in “Do-re-mi, etc.” Well, that would have been wearing an insult as a badge of honor… . But, as one can discern from this segment from the documentary film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, O’Day had no trouble finding “Do.”

Dough, however, was another story, in that O’Day was a heroin addict. Heroin use very well might have contributed to this exuberant, bordering on manic, performance.

More, after the jump.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day was fashion photographer Bert Stern’s first effort at directing a film. One of the things that has ensured the film’s continued popularity and relevance is that Stern did not approach the event from a standpoint of wanting to make a “music video.” He wanted to show the context provided by the environment and especially the people. I think though that it is obvious that he used his fashion-photographer’s eye in choosing which people to watch. And now, I indulge in a little self-quotation:

The visual result is immensely attractive. It looks like a succession of 1950s fashion, glamour, and nightclub still shots interspersed with day-in-the-life vignettes filmed on the fly, from a solo cellist playing Bach in a boardinghouse room to children on a playground. There are also “Impressionistic” shots of moving water and of undulating reflections in the water. Many scenes are framed “dramatically,” and the colors are over-saturated, as in a 1950s magazine spread.

Adding to the visual interest is the fact that, that summer, the America’s Cup international yacht races were being held in Rhode Island Sound, off Newport. (As far as I can tell, most of the shots are of spectator, rather than competitor, yachts.) This is more an art film than a documentary. There is no dialog or voiceover narration, only occasional stage announcements and a radio interview or two. I think it fair to say that Stern’s innovations have had a continued influence on generations of artsy documentaries, such as Winged Migration, and on films such as Steve McQueen’s Le Mans.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day is as much about one imaginatively-constructed summer day and the evening that follows as it is a music-performance documentary. That’s what gives it its wider appeal. Stern was fascinated by the social juxtapositions the Festival occasioned, so much of the film is devoted to people watching. My favorite performance is Anita O’Day’s daytime set.

Other headliners include Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, an impossibly young Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Giuffre (whose surname is misspelled “Guiffre” in the credits), and Chico Hamilton. (Chuck Berry appears, but his performance of “Sweet Little Sixteen” strikes me as belabored and out of place. Duke Ellington also performed, as did Miles Davis, but neither was filmed; permission to film them and others was not forthcoming.)

I wish I could provide a link for something other than Amazon’s streaming video, but it appears that the excellent New Yorker Video DVD remastering (DVD 16500) from 2000 is now out of print. Be careful about buying used DVDs, in that many on offer will not play on US DVD players. So, streaming it is.

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