Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (AOD Productions, NR)

dvd_oday.jpgO’Day didn’t just sing jazz, she led a jazz life in which every moment was improvised.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Anita O’Day had to choose a motto for her life, it would probably be "That’s how it went down."

It wasn’t always e—– the road to becoming the only white jazz singer admitted to the pantheon which includes Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald included heroin addiction, jail time, multiple marriages and abortions—but she continued recording right up to her death at age 84. And she regretted none of it. It’s a real pleasure to see O’Day stand down fatuous interviewers (including Bryant Gumble and Dick Cavett) with her trademark response to questions about the less conventional aspects of her life: Good, bad or indifferent, it was her life, and that’s how it went down.

O’Day didn’t just sing jazz, she led a jazz life in which every moment was improvised. It started when, as a teenager, she was discovered by Gene Krupa and went on the road with her band. She saw her role as one of the musicians, rather than as a "canary" fronting the band.

To this end, O’Day rejected the evening gown typically worn by jazz singers in favor of a band blazer and skirt. This not only signified her kinship with the instrumentalists, but also allowed her more freedom to move. There was a distinctly instrumental aspect to her voice as well, which was exemplified by her recording of "Four Brothers," where she sings a line originally written for saxophone.

Asked about the sources of her distinctive vocal style, O’Day explains that it was born of necessity. An early tonsillectomy left her without a uvula and hence without the customary means for producing vocal vibrato. This forced her to develop a style based on rapid passages of notes rather than long sustained tones, thus masking her inability to produce a conventional vibrato.

O’Day also challenged the color line: One of her regular numbers with Krupa’s band was a duet with African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and she performed it even when the band was touring the South.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer is a conventional documentary composed primarily of clips of O’Day performing and interviews with her contemporaries and current jazz experts. It makes the case for her position in the jazz pantheon, although the case would have been made even better had the documentary included more and longer segments of music and fewer talking heads. The filmmakers may have been making do with what was available, however: O’Day did not often perform on film. The major exception was her appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Convention (immortalized in Brian Stern’s 1960 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day), and a lengthy clip from that performance is included in this film.

Jazz fans will want to see Anita O’Day for the perspective it brings to one of the great singers of our time. And for those unfamiliar with O’Day, it should whet their appetite to hear more. Fortunately, many O’Day recordings are available on CD and as MP3 downloads, and perhaps this film will provide introduce her artistry to a younger generation of musicians. | Sarah Boslaugh

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