Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

The Needle and the Record


Featuring: Anita O’Day, Buddy Bregman

By Allie Willis

As a relative rookie to jazz music, I was slightly surprised at how instantaneously my feet seemed to disconnect from my concrete self, how suddenly they were captured by Anita O’Day’s smoky and sultry rhythms, only to be reluctantly released after an hour and a half toe-tapping routine by the ending credits.  A captivating documentary detailing the tumultuous singing career of jazz’s wild child and resident rule-breaker, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer seduces audiences with its star’s wry wit, startling frankness, and talent comparable only to the other jazz greats, namely Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Paired alongside Anita’s charming personal recollections are numerous rare, vintage performances, interviews with friends, family, legendary vocalists, arrangers, and producers, and a continuous compilation of all things jazz – records, brass, drugs, bright colors, dancing, taxing travel, nightclubs.

The Life of a Jazz Singer, completed just weeks before O’Day’s November 2006 death, is a well thought out tribute to a true talent that perhaps did not receive the recognition she so deserved.  Directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden chronologically detail the ups and downs of O’Days life, placing particular emphasis on the evolution of her talent and drug abuse.  Her childhood recollections are brief and incorporate family – introducing the audience to a sweet girl from Chicago initially pained by a botched throat operation.  Ironically, it is this accidental slice that left O’Day with her distinctive jazz garble – a unique combination of percussive sensuality and croaky pop.

It was this jazz garble that Gene Krupa noticed, Stan Kenton developed, and O’Day rode to her height of fame.  Excerpts from newspapers, magazines, posters, and reviews follow the hype – introducing O’Day first as an emerging talent, later (after a possession of marijuana arrest and jail time) the “Jezebel of Jazz”, and finally a victim of her surroundings, another jazz singer facing drug-addled tragedy.  O’Day, however, refuses to categorize herself as a victim; she speaks without prevarication of her interest in drugs, an interest stemming from preconceived notions of the press.

Although the documentary opens with reports of rape, abortions, multiple marriages, jail, and heroin addiction, audiences are left with mere mentions of the former, overloaded with the latter.  Understandably some of subjects may have been too difficult to broach with O’Day herself, although she discusses addiction incredibly candidly. With uncomfortable frankness, O’Day reveals her first heroin experience and explicitly details the downward spiral that followed.  Special emphasis is placed on her thirty plus year collaboration with fellow heroin addict John Poole, an equally disturbed jazz drummer who actually introduced O’Day to the drug.  Several clips of the two performing together are narrated by O’Day, who explains that the improvisation and rhythm that seem so natural were actually brought on by an incredibly unnatural high.

The most amazing accomplishment of Life of a Jazz Singer, however, is the inclusion of many of the jazz greats, those legends whose names and work, either on stage or behind the scenes, would keep them in a perpetual spotlight.  Interviews with friends (and accomplices) from various times in O’Day’s life – Louis Armstrong, Will Friedwald, Johnny Mandel, Annie Ross, George Wein, Margaret Whiting, and Gerald Wilson – introduce audiences to not only O’Day’s charisma and talent, but to the jazz world in general.  In vintage interviews with television icons such as Dick Cavett and Brian Gumbo, O’Day speaks candidly and “owns up” to her travails with a raspy laugh and steadfast eyes.  However, as O’Day performs alongside Stan Kenton, Roy Eldridge, Gene Krupa, Hoagy Carmichael, and Louis Armstrong (to name a few), the spotlight shines primarily on the beautifully tragic and captivating Anita O’Day.

O’Day, understandably the most active contributor of the documentary, describes her journey through jazz stardom well into old age, with clips from her early thirties to late eighties.  Speaking with the seasoned attitude of a woman who has been around the block, has seen her fair share of the world and its cruelty, a frail O’Day comically chronicles her younger years, reflects quite frankly on her missteps in adulthood, and acknowledges that she is, indeed, a survivor of the Golden Age – an Age that so tragically claimed the lives of many of her contemporaries.

Author: Allie Willis

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