Anita O'Day: The Life Of A Jazz Singer

Victor L. Schermer By

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What is most precious about this film is the movie and television footage of O'Day singing
Anita O'Day
Anita O'Day: The Life Of A Jazz Singer
AOD Productions

Whatever else she was, Anita O'Day was a bundle of contradictions. Though one of the top four or five women jazz singers of her generation, she had little idea what she was doing with her life or where she was going with her art. She led a miserable though long life, was regularly addicted to drugs and alcohol, frequently disappeared from view, was eventually reduced to going to the races in search of diversion, and dedicated her autobiography—High Times, Hard Times (New York, 1981), a good and honest book written with George Eells—to her dog, Emily. How do you reconcile such a life with the music? Perhaps it isn't possible.

The paradox is raised over and over again by the fast-paced documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden, two filmmakers with long involvement in music. The film presents O'Day's life candidly and intimately, including interviews with her as well as with numerous musicians, friends and associates. It also provides excerpts from TV interviews with Harry Reasoner, Dick Cavett, Brian Gumbo and Maury Povich. There is footage of the singer going about her daily life and appearing at clubs and concert halls. Flashes of news clippings demarcate her rise to fame—and her downfall following heroin addiction.

Out of this feast of documentation a personality emerges, a not particularly attractive or comfortable one. While her fellow singer Billie Holiday's life was equally fragmented, O'Day's does not have the same tragic sense of a beautiful person destroyed by the world around her. Rather, she comes across as female counterpart of the self-destructive trumpeter Chet Baker, who chose a life of existential chaos believing it to be a way to become "free." This confused fantasy permeates the film, which by turns lays it bare and then covers it up with rationalizations and dubious "insights."

But O'Day still deserves our love and compassion. In her own way, she was a victim of the second-class citizenship assigned both to women and to jazz entertainers during her earlier days on the circuit. She was also a victim of the drug culture that permeated the jazz life during the 1940s and 1950s. Further, there was a redemptive aspect to her singing, which was exceedingly respectful of the music and the musicians, through shared technical excellence and creativity. O'Day was a true artist of song, a musician who used her voice, rather than a mere "singer," as one of the film's interviewees points out.

Further, she was possessed of an innocent, non-religious spirituality, and told how in her youth she talked with a God who affirmed her budding identity. Throughout her life she felt an unseen, "other" presence that sustained her. Her favorite race track was Santa Anita, and one can somehow accept that Anita O'Day was a latter day saint, a Mary Magdalen, sanctified by childlike innocence, a love of the moment, and a God-given unsurpassed musical gift. In the film, at least, she never has an unkind word to say about anyone, and she seemed to be loved and accepted by those around her, even for her weaknesses. In the end, she is redeemed.

But what is most precious about this film is the movie and television footage of O'Day singing, from her very beginnings with Gene Krupa's band to studio takes during her last recording, aptly entitled Indestructible (Kayo Stereophonic, 2006). In her youth, and well into middle age, she had a naturally beautiful and expressive face that was, and remains, truly captivating.

O'Day's body language tells you much about her musical genius. Her gestures are neither seductive nor melancholic. Instead they are economical and responsive only to the music—a hand movement, a turn of the head towards a musician, a sudden freezing of motion as she holds the space between notes, a bending towards or away from the microphone, a quick change of facial expression. O'Day's whole body is attuned to the music. That is what enabled her to make the transition to bebop, which few singers fully achieved. She was in the musical moment like no other singer, hearing everything the group was doing and adding to it with spontaneity and flare.

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