Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007)

JAZZ SINGER POSTER JPGCrucial documentary on a little known white jazz singer. There are three principal elements in judging a jazz vocalist:

  1. Tone, and key of voice
  2. Choice of compositions
  3. Choice of musicians

Anita has all three. Her style is more rhythmic and less vibrato, which gives her a cool percussive edge. She is a natural scatter, and great improviser. Her life is the kind of American character story of a great American novel, full of details about street life and small club showbiz. All fine and dandy, until they show her 1958 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival: her rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”, the Louis Armonstrong classic, is better than Ella’s or Vaughan’s. Precise modulation of voice, great tempo changes, and languid phrasing. It’s erotic, and soulful. Other filmed performances are just as transcendent. Her work from 1948 to 1962 is probably unrivaled, unequaled, and unfortunately still unexamined. Every album she recorded from that era has a moment of pure ecstasy. Whether it’s her improvised scatting, or the way she takes a regular tempo beat and switches to double-time to deliver what I can only call an early form of punk-jazz, making bebop interpretations of classic standards (see “Tea for Two“).

I will out myself as a jazz fan and admit that I’ve been obsessed with her since watching the documentary. Many moments left me breathless, whether it was the Japanese TV specials with close-ups like Orson Welles, or her appearance on Art Ford’s Jazz Party TV, where she does a version of “Body and Soul” at an unusually fast tempo. Her life story is straight out of Samuel Fuller screenplay, including jail time and heroin addiction. She never remarried, and kept singing into her old age, leaving no family members behind. Her biography “High Times, Hard Times” is just as good as any novel and defines a rather unique uncompromising artistic ethos. She was mentored by the monologist, poet, and comedian, Lord Buckley who also influenced Elaine May and Mike Nichols. Anita grew up on the rough streets of Chicago during the Depression era, before she became a big band singer touring the country with The Gene Krupa Orchestra, one of the first famous white swing orchestras in America. In the 50’s, she delved deeply into bebop and evolved her style to suit its technical and emotional rigor. The tone that comes out of her is at times so mesmerizing it seems unreal. She is an outsider entertainer at heart, but with the grace and dignity to touch all of humanity.

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Categories: female leads, Notes

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