Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden
viewed: 02/03/10

I’ve been an Anita O’Day fan for some years now, but really, I didn’t know more than a general sketch or bullet points of her life and certainly not as much of her significance in true jazz circles.  So, when I saw that there was a documentary about her life, I was pretty keen to see it.

Names like  Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald resonate even the most non-jazz types.  But what is interesting, at least with the folks interviewed in this film, that Anita O’Day is actually considered as pure a jazz singer, as prime a jazz singer, as unique and important, seen in the same light with those other legends.  But O’Day is not the household name that those others are.

The film is extremely earnest and loving, interviewing O’Day toward the last couple years of her life (she died in 2002), but featuring performances, interviews, footage all from throughout her life and career.  So, while there isn’t one definitive set of interviews, we do get to see her with both Dick Cavett and Tom Snyder and even the annoying Bryant Gumbel.  She performed with so many of the legends.

But what I didn’t know was how much an innovator she was.  She came up with Gene Krupa in the Swing Band Era, also playing with Stan Kenton, but her Krupa tracks are some of the best swing tunes in my opinion.  But she innovated as well by deciding to move into playing with smaller groups, quartets and trios, and really influenced by Be-Bop, she also was massively into improvisation, not just scatting, but playing like crazy with tempo.

She tells a story about how during her tonsilectomy her uvula was accidentally cut off, which limited her ability at vibrato and sustained notes, which led her to stylistically play with shorter, more up-tempo variations, which wound up being her style.  And during the film, she shows a couple of times how aware she was of tempos and the variations that can arise from playing with those, changing a song in a multitude of ways.

She also was a heroin addict for 14 years, which led to an overdose that nearly killed her, and finally got her to clean up in the late 1960’s.  She’s one of those performers whose whole storytelling is part of their persona, so has a brassy openness about her hard times and talks frankly about drug use and withdrawl and survival.

Also so very profound is her performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, captured for the film Jazz on a Summer Day (1960).  It’s considered one of the great jazz vocal live performances ever caught on film, certainly one of the greatest performances of that song.  I quickly added the film to my queue and sent it right to the top.

While the film is good and earnest, it’s not a masterwork itself of any kind, cobbled together as it is, but still so important that it’s also the first documentary made about this amazing jazz singer/stylist, who is truly among the great ones despite her relative obscurity.  I’ve got her playing as I write this and feel pretty damn happy to have learned about and been reminded about such an amazing artist and a truly interesting woman.

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