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  •  REVIEW: ANITA O'DAY: THE LIFE OF A JAZZ SINGER

      Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer
    What a difference an O'Day makes

    All in all, an ode to the endurance of a true icon and a tribute to her unique talent. It's fairly certain she would have liked it herself and that's high praise indeed.

    By LESLIE (HOBAN) BLAKE
    Offoffoff.com


    "So you play today, you don't worry about what's gone, 'cause that's already gone and you can't bring what's gone back — it doesn't happen that way," the feisty old broad says to the camera. Hard to believe she was once dubbed the "Jezebel of Jazz" until you've seen the story of the life that precedes that quote.

    ANITA O'DAY: THE LIFE OF A JAZZ SINGER
    Written and directed by: Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden.
    Produced by: Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden, Melissa Davis.
    Cast: Anita O'Day, Louis Armstrong, Will Friedwald, Johnny Mandel, Annie Ross, George Wein, Margaret Whiting, Gerald Wilson.
    Cinematography: Ian McCrudden.
    Edited by: Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden.
    Music by: Thomas Golubic.
    Art direction by: Robbie Cavolina.

    Related links: Official site
      
    It's also hard to believe that Anita Belle Colton — her birth name, O'Day was a pure construct, pig latin for dough as in bread as in paycheck — could have had a 60+ year career much less a life of over eight decades given her propensity for self-destructive behavior. Did I mention her 20 years of addiction to heroin and alcohol, a rape, a couple of failed marriages, an abortion or two plus a near-death OD in 1969?

    On one level the film could almost be taken as an exhortation to just say yes. O'Day didn't wear long sleeves and didn't seem to have needle marks (God only knows where she shot up!) but to hear her tell it, years after the fact, heroin was better than sex or just about anything but singing.

      
      O'Day was the only white jazzster to be spoken of in the same sentence with Ella, Billie, and Sassy.
      
    And what a singer! Her idiosyncratic style of sliding and holding notes — "I do not scat," she iterates during one interview — was the result of losing her uvula and therefore any hope of a vibrato, to a botched tonsillectomy as a child. She began singing at age 12.

    The short (92 minutes) doc features myriad such interviews with the likes of Dick Cavett, David Frost, and even Bryant Gumbel in his pre-sportscaster mode. She easily puts him down when he turns snarky on her — she would talk about anything with anyone but rarely tolerated fools. And then there are the performance clips!

    Among the many highlights of her long career are her appearances at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival which came smack (no pun intended) dab in the middle of her addictive life. She totters on-stage on plastic high heels that look like Cinderella's glass slippers, wearing a sleeveless (!) form fitting frock and short ladylike white gloves with feathers ringing her platter sized picture hat. The outfit and the lady wearing it are the epitome of '50's cool — it's even featured on the movie poster.


      
    As for O'Day's vocal speed, it's been said she could sing as fast as Oscar Peterson, another longtime collaborator, could play the piano.  

      
    Then she breaks into a stunning acapella opening to "Sweet Georgia Brown" with nothing but bongos for back-up, quickly followed by the world's fastest "Tea for Two" (both can be seen at You Tube) accompanied by her long-time friend and drug buddie John Poole on drums. Their 32-year relationship outlasted all of her marriages. As for her vocal speed, it's been said she could sing as fast as Oscar Peterson, another longtime collaborator, could play the piano.

    There were three blonde jazz singers in the '50s. O'Day was the first, followed by June Christie (whom she not only discovered but got to cover her gig with Stan Kenton when she decided to go back to Gene Krupa's band) and Chris Connor. But O'Day was the only white jazzster to be spoken of in the same sentence with Ella, Billie, and Sassy and was even signed by Verve records before Ella.

    The film, by Robbie Cavolina, O'Day's manager for the last six years of her life (she died at age 87 in 2006 after making her last album just three years earlier) and Ian McCrudden, is a jazz fan's candy box. Liberal use is made of O'Day's funky record covers to lead into the musical interludes, the interviews and the many, many talking heads. All in all, an ode to the endurance of a true icon and a tribute to her unique talent. It's fairly certain she would have liked it herself and that's high praise indeed.

    AUGUST 26, 2008
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK


    Reader comments on Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer:

  • O'Day   from Iain, Dec 12, 2010

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