Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Jazz Life of Anita O’Day

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer 2-DVD set
Directed by Robbie Cavolina & Ian McCrudden

She offers no excuses or apologies for living a dramatic, sometimes even lurid life. Anita O’Day is an acknowledged member of the Jazz Pantheon, whom many consider the equal of legendary vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She was also a longtime heroin addict who had a knack for getting involved with the wrong men. Hers was truly a jazz life, which is documented with appropriate verve in Robbie Cavolina & Ian McCrudden’s Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (trailer here), now available on DVD.

O’Day’s first real national exposure came with Gene Krupa’s band, where she raised eyebrows by playfully interacting onstage with the African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Then following a brief stint with Woody Herman, she reluctantly signed on with Stan Kenton’s outfit, where she tried valiantly to get him to swing more, as she explains in a hilarious segment. Despite Kenton’s terminally whitebread style, O’Day was able to make silk purses out of his novelty numbers like “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” before striking out on her own.

Unfortunately, O’Day’s life is nearly synonymous with chaos, with her addictions all too public, yet she kept plugging away at the jazz life. She was commencing another comeback shortly before her death, with the help of her final manager, co-director Cavolina.

We do hear various interviewers ask the requisite questions about drugs and other madness, which she answers honestly and directly. However, true to the jazz ethos, she appears more interested in the present than the dead past. Likewise, Cavolina and McCrudden seem more concerned with O’Day’s music than the details of her habit, which is quite novel. Refreshingly, their interview subjects include many musicians and arrangers like Joe Wilder, Dr. Billy Taylor, Russ Garcia, and Annie Ross, whose reminiscences will certainly interest jazz listeners beyond O’Day’s considerable diehard fans.

Happily, O’Day emerges as the film’s best sound-bite, displaying real charisma and a hipster sense humor even at an advanced age. If nothing else, Cavolina and McCrudden prove she was one cool canary. They also present her music well, including many vintage O’Day performances, many of which are included in their entirety in the bonus section. Also among the substantial extras are interview outtakes featuring O’Day’s reflections on many of her classic Verve albums that will fascinate her serious fans.

Despite the many talking heads, Jazz Singer moves along at vigorous pace. It is a well put together film, featuring stylish graphics clearly inspired by O’Day’s groovy Verve album covers. O’Day fans will be happy to find Cavolina & McCrudden’s approach to their subject and the ultimate execution do right by the jazz great. While they never duck the tough realities of O’Day’s jazz life, they keep the focus squarely where it belongs—on her music. The standard 2-DVD set of Jazz Singer releases today, to be followed by a deluxe edition bound with a special 160 page hardcover book on September 1st.