October 2009

Anita O'Day
The Life of a Jazz Singer

While peers and critics have no qualms about equating her with Ella, Sarah and Billie, Anita O’Day’s passing in 2006 at age 87 was met with relatively little fanfare by the mainstream media, which is all the more reason to savor this engrossing documentary. O’Day’s gifts as a vocalist were unassailable. Preferring the word “stylist” to “singer,” she was a master of expression, timing and phrasing whose improvisational skills matched any of the instrumentalists with whom she was allied. In myriad performance clips, stretching back to the ’40s and threaded throughout the program, O’Day continually dazzles. Her 1958 Newport reading of “Sweet Georgia Brown” may be the definitive take on that chestnut, and she didn’t just front Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge at the start of her career—she outshone them.

But O’Day’s musical aptitude was always overshadowed by her considerable personal troubles, and directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden neither whitewash nor overplay the soap-opera-esque trajectory of her life, as she survived jail time and abortion, failed marriages, alcohol abuse and a two-decade, widely reported heroin addiction instigated and enabled by her longtime drummer John Poole. O’Day, in interview segments conducted both during her prime and late in life, is matter-of-fact about those experiences, recounting them in a feisty, boisterous tone. “That’s the way it went down,” she says at one point, and there’s no sense of regret when she says it. Through all of the tumult she was never a quitter, and her durability and resilience are remarkable.

Accordingly, the obligatory commentary by critics and associates—from Will Friedwald to Annie Ross to Gerald Wilson—is nearly all upbeat and supportive. While no one condones her behavior, there’s a general consensus that O’Day turned her problems into strengths. Unlike, say, Billie Holiday, there’s no indication that O’Day’s addiction debilitated her; even at her most strung-out, O’Day’s chops were seemingly unaffected. And the fact that—having long ago left the drugs and other craziness behind—she was still performing (albeit with diminished vocal capabilities) until shortly before her death is a testament to her iron will.

A second DVD includes uninterrupted performance clips and interview outtakes, and a deluxe edition comes with a hardcover book stuffed with photocopies of hundreds of original reviews and articles from O’Day’s prime years. It’s well worth the additional cost.

1 Comment

  • Nov 20, 2009 at 07:22AM Alessandro Oggioni

    I've been an early buyer of Anita O'Day magnificient Mosaic Box, back in the '90s. I loved her music since, red her scary and peculiar 'Hard Times, Hard Times'. In 2007 I have seen the 'european première' of Robert Cavolina documentary and buyed as soon as possible this work on DVD. Being really fond of Anita O'Day, I always seen her involvement in addiction as a typical evolution of an instable and 'borderline' personality (read what Art Pepper say of her as a still young Kenton canary in his autobiography...), maybe a spontaneous strategy to stand the stress levels of playing debating with fellow musicians getting contracts and recording. Somehow, I always believed she ruined herself also with substances abuse: she failed to keep the creativity of incredible records and good contracts she was able in the Clef/Verve years. Her 20 years long eroin addiction really ruined her artistic production -or helped to. For a few years she stood the position, then she lost and never recovered the brilliant status she had (1963 on, keeping on booze et similia without performing as before no more ever).
    This may well be a bad side effect of drugs and the implied lifestyle, wouldn't it?

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!