Anita O’Day is maybe not quite as well-known as she should be, but amongst jazz musicians and aficionados she is one of the greatest- a singer in the ranks of the queens of jazz. Fortunately a documentary about her life, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, was just released on DVD and chronicles not only her life and performances, but also the sass and humor that made her a jazz legend.
This film covers her full career from young “canary” to last-chance comeback and does what I wish more music documentaries would- it lets the performances speak for themselves. It includes lots of cool live performance footage- the highlight of which is her famous appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival (footage originally from the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day). Also remarkable are the interviews with Anita O’Day herself – from vintage 60 Minutes & Dick Cavett footage to the current interviews the filmmakers captured as they made the doc.
Of course, there is the compulsory attention paid to her drug addiction and living “the jazz life”. Her arrest, her lifelong drug-fueled partnership with her drummer John Poole and how, remarkably, she was one of the few that got clean and kicked the habit. But none of that rock-bottom dwelling is as mesmerizing as her musical performances or her describing how and why she sings the way she does. From her absent uvula and lack of vibrato to explain why she sings shorter notes or how she sped thru songs with Oscar Peterson like they were races. These are the gems that this documentary captures. I am so thankful that the filmmakers had the wherewithal to get such candid interviews with her and document her life before she passed away in 2006. Hearing her laugh and “talk jazz” really leaves an impression of the true spitfire of a woman behind the singer.
If you cannot see the full movie at least watch this clip of her performing at the Newport Jazz Festival- it might change your mind after it blows it away:
Here’s the trailer for the documentary now available on DVD:
Producer, Branded Music/Voice Talent