On the list of all-time great female jazz vocalists, you’ve got legends like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Hovering somewhere just below them, you’ll invariably encounter the name Anita O’Day. It’s not a name familiar to the garden-variety music listener. But to those in the know, it speaks volumes. Anita O’Day: pioneer, innovator, icon. O’Day is noted as much for her inimitable vocal style as for the sheer fact that she walked the walk as well as talked the talk.
When asked late in her career (by Bryant Gumbel, of all people) about the mountainous obstacles in her storied career (obstacles on the order of rape, abortion, jail time and heroin addiction), this dame responded with a famously offhanded but telling quote: “That’s just the way it went down.”
Captured in all her rough-edged, highly resilient glory by first-time filmmakers Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden, Anita O’Day finally gets her day in the sun, courtesy of the vibrant musical doc Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer. Naturally, there is the usual retinue of critics, fans, composers and fellow musicians ready, willing and able to sing the lady’s praises. But the most compelling evidence comes from the woman herself. Brutally honest, incredibly entertaining interviews with the eightysomething icon (completed mere weeks before her in death November of 2006 and supplemented by choice “on the couch” clips with Dick Cavett, David Frost and Harry Reasoner) reveal an iconoclastic performer. Over the course of 70 or so years, Ms. O’Day bucked convention and contemporary trends because she acknowledged none of it. Early gigs with Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton’s orchestras are marked by star-making performances (in an era when singers were mere backup), energetic stage presence (when singers were expected to stand regally still), ping-pong interaction with various members of the band (a white woman singing with black men was certainly a no-no), and a “one of the boys” fashion sense that had her dressing in suits and skirts (a cocktail dress being the de rigueur uniform for female songbirds). Of course, it is images of O’Day’s stage performances (captured in vintage Soundie film shorts, television appearances and concert footage) that argue most convincingly for the woman’s musical canonization.
One sequence in the film has O’Day belting out her rendition of “Let’s Fall in Love.” Of the seven or eight versions showcased here, spread out over the course of several decades, not one sounds remotely the same. Each is a compelling new take on the classic tune. Even more stunning is indelible footage of O’Day, decked out in a truly fabulous hat, performing a jaw-dropping version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. It’s a mesmerizing, career-defining performance. You don’t even realize until halfway though which song she’s singing. It sounds that fresh.
From her early days performing “red hot” jazz to her incalculable contribution to “bebop” jazz, The Life of a Jazz Singer traces O’Day’s personal evolution as well as the evolution of the art form. Even those with little previous taste for the genre will find The Life of a Jazz Singer an incredible odyssey. Funny, flawed, defiant and damnably talented, Anita O’Day is certainly a ripe subject for the biography treatment. As a result, this isn’t simply a film for people who know their way around polyrhythms and syncopation and whatever the hell else goes into that mysterious musical brew known as jazz. If you know absolutely nothing about jazz (my hand is raised), you will know something after watching this. If you’re already a fan, then Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer is indispensable viewing.