Sunday, August 10, 2008



Photo from Vanity Fair

Jazz is addictive.

Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, the more I watched, the more I wanted it to continue ... watching forever her performances.

Though somewhat less well known to the general public than other great jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, she is generally taken by jazz lovers to be one of the five or so greatest jazz singers ever. She was especially noted for her rhythmic and improvisational skills. She was one of the rare white female jazz singers. And one whose performances with white and "colored" musicians in a time of great prejudice were essentially color-blind.

Anita at the Newport Jazz Festival

This film, in addition to generous clips of her performances, including her famous appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, features numerous luminaries talking about her, and excerpts from interviews with her late in her life.

Anita, as she looked singing in her prime

In addition to hints about how her skills developed, the film most powerfully provides a picture of her personality. She is strong, and a survivor: not only is jazz addictive but, unfortunately, so are drugs, and many great jazz artists, including Anita, were addicts. She survived a nearly fatal overdose as well as drug related prison time. (She remarks that after she was released from jail, not only did her prison time not hurt her career, but it attracted her biggest audiences.) She survived several incidents of apparent medical malpractice. Losing her uvula -- that's in the throat -- during a routine tonsillectomy-- took from her one of the body's best tools for creating vibrato, and partly led to her leaning toward rhythmic vocal music with quick notes that need less vibrato; and a later broken arm led to all sorts of complications. She prospered (that's a relative term when it comes to money -- it doesn't seem like she had a lot of it, especially in the beginning, and later --as someone remarks in the film -- much of her money went up her nose or into her arm) in the 40's to the 60's and lived about 87 years until 2006.
(Anita O'Day:October 18, 1919 – November 23, 2006)

She made up her stage name, O'Day, from the pig-latin (or atin'lay ig'pay) for dough (slang for "money" in those days). What most characterized her singing (and off-stage) personality was a compelling mixture of hot and cool, diffidence and commitment. She sang cool jazz with rhythmic heat. She affected not caring about problems, taking them as they come, yet had a steely determination. For part of the film -- if you stopped somewhere in the middle -- listening to her you would think she was a spokeswoman for the drug lobby, giving a most matter of fact description of why drugs are good to use; making an almost convincing case for using them. Later, after describing how a friend died of an overdose, and she, herself, almost did as well, she describes her own heroic, one-woman detox program, going to Hawaii by herself to clean up. It was her personality, integrated into her musical performances that made her -- and this film -- special!

Anita, and her performances, are in
several films.

Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer is well worth seeing... and listening to, too!

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