Anita...Oh Anita!

A review of the just-released DVD, "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Slinger


Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

Anita O'Day. There will never be another like her in the history of jazz. Along with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and perhaps one or two others, she influenced scores of jazz singers and virtually created a language -- and set the standard-- for true, modern jazz singing.

And yes, she lived what used to be called the "jazz life," with a decades-long substance abuse problem, destructive relationships, and what can gently be termed as career highs and career lows.

But through her astounding professional life, that lasted from the early 1930s to her death in 2006, she always, always performed at the highest level. As detailed in her 1981 autobiography, "High Times, Hard Times," life was rarely easy, and she almost lost her life more than once due to addiction.

Above all, Anita O'Day was a survivor. In the true sense of the word.

Jazz aficionados are fortunate that O'Day was amply represented on recordings from 1941 until her death, and that a good amount of performance film exists. Those films would include her film shorts with drummer Gene Krupa from the early 1940s, her memorable appearance in the legendary "Jazz on a Summer's Day" documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival from 1958 and a guest stint on the Timex All-Star Jazz television show from the same year, a wonderful concert from Japan in 1963, a hard-hitting turn on "60 Minutes" profile from 1980, and various other odds and ends.

As incisive as her autobiography was and is (none other than Madonna was reported to have owned the rights to it for some time) along with the great recordings and videos, Anita O'Day's real story--and the impact she had and has in the world of jazz--has never really been told. Until now.

"Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer" is an award-winning film, completed in 2007 but now available on DVD for the first time, that truly tells the tale of a certifiable legend. Co-directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden, this marvelous production includes film of Anita's interviews with Dick Cavett, David Frost, Bryant Gumble (that one is worth the price of admission), and comments from her fellow artists and collaborators through the years, including Buddy Bregman, Russ Garcia, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, Annie Ross, George Wein and Joe Wilder.

Taken as a cinematic whole, "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer" is, quite simply, Academy Award-winning material.

For those unfamiliar with O'Day's history, her first break as a singer was in 1938, when she began appearing at Chicago's Off-Beat club, where she caught the attention of Gene Krupa. She continued working around Chicago until she joined Krupa in 1941. Her duet with Krupa trumpeter Roy Eldridge, "Let Me Off Uptown," became a hit, and she was named "New Star of the Year" by DownBeat magazine. When Krupa disbanded in 1943, she briefly joined Woody Herman's band, then the orchestra of Stan Kenton, where she again hit on wax with "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine." She rejoined Krupa in 1945 and stayed a year. From that time on, she worked as a single.

From 1952 to 1962, in addition to touring nationwide, she recorded a series of 17 albums for Norman Granz' Verve label and its various imprints. On an artistic basis and without exception, they still stand up today as among the most remarkable recordings in jazz history. Individually and collectively, they reveal a timeless "hipness," sense of swing and overall sensitivity that will never, ever go out of style.

In the latter 1960s, O'Day recorded a well-received series of albums for a record company she owned and operated, Emily Records. Indeed, aside from the efforts of Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie in the early 1950s, Emily was among the few, "jazz artist owned and operated" record companies in the history of jazz.

Her final album, "Indestructible," was recorded in 2004 and 2005, and released in 2006. It was her first recorded effort in 13 years. She died in November of 2006, seven months after its release.

Singular credit must be given to Robbie Cavolina, who was O'Day's manager for some years, and truly the mastermind behind "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer." He almost single-handedly ensured that O'Day got the credit she deserved as an icon and an innovator during her lifetime, and that, almost until the end, that she kept working. That Anita O'Day was around for 87 years--and still singing--had much to do with his dedication.

Jazz has been blessed with a pretty comprehensive filmed history, especially in the last 15 years or so, with performance films, features and documentaries. I've made a few of them myself.

This one is the best.

"Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer" is available in two editions: The standard edition is a two-DVD set that includes a 32-page, full color booklet with essays by noted jazz historians James Gavin and Will Friedwald, plus 16 pages of Anita O'Day's scrapbooks. The deluxe edition includes the above, along with a 144-page, hard bound coffee table book of O'Day's 1939 to 1969 scrapbooks. Both are available via most online ordering outlets. For more information, visit www.AnitaODay.com, the official web site of Anita O'Day.

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Bruce Klauber