May 24, 2010

The Way It Went Down

Anita O'Day - The Life Of A Jazz SingerAnita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2009) is a warts-and-all portrait of the great jazz vocalist, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 87. The film contains a trove of archival footage covering O’Day’s entire career, extended interviews with O’Day, and comments from other musicians and critics. While the filmmakers obviously adore her, they don’t shy away from the darker aspects of her life. Neither does O’Day herself - shy is not an adjective you could possibly apply to her.
     O’Day was born in Chicago in 1919 and was a chorus girl by the age of 17. She claimed a surgical mistake during a childhood tonsillectomy, which excised her uvula, left her incapable of singing with vibrato or able to maintain long notes. This forced her to develop the more rhythmic singing style that she was famous for.
     She got her big break in the early 1940s with Gene Krupa’s band. A short “soundie” musical film from the time shows a young, flirty O’Day upstaging trumpeter Roy Eldridge on "Let Me Off Uptown." She also spent some time with the Stan Kenton orchestra as the lead singer, although it was not always a happy collaboration.
     She launched her solo career in the late Forties, and this was also the start of her drug problems. She was arrested for possession of marijuana and sentenced to 90 days in jail. O’Day was one of the earliest embodiments of the “hip white chick” and she’s even mentioned in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. She asserts that the controversy actually helped her career.
     She recorded her first album, Anita O’Day Sings Jazz, in 1952 for the new label Norgran Records, Norman Granz’s precursor to Verve Records. In fact, it was the label's inaugural record and proved to be a popular success. O’Day recorded a total of seventeen LPs for Verve. At the same time, she was also arrested for possession of heroin, an addiction that would continue into the late Sixties and lead to her designation as “the Jezebel of Jazz.”
     Her appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival propelled her into stardom. Her spectacular performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown” while decked out in a short black dress and showy ostrich-feather hat is featured in Bert Stern’s documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, where she steals the show. This performance is shown in full here as well. After this, she continued to record in the 1960s and toured extensively overseas, particularly in Japan.
     She nearly died of a heroin overdose in 1968; in fact, she was pronounced dead before being revived. This experience convinced her to kick the habit. She is quite matter-of-fact about her drug addiction in her 1981 memoir, High Times, Hard Times, and in this film she refuses to sentimentalize or moralize about it. During an interview on the Today show, host Bryant Gumbel sanctimoniously delineates her many hardships: "Your personal experiences include rape, abortion, jail, heroin addiction..." She cuts him off - "It's the way it went down, Bryant" - the icy emphasis on the final “t” in his first name chills any attempt to elicit “valuable lessons learned” from her life. She’ll have none of it.
     This film shows her to be not only a great vocalist and hip white chick, but also - there’s no better way to put it - a tough broad. Her later career was uneven, as was her voice (intonation was not her strong suit), but she continued recording right up to the end - her last LP was the aptly named Indestructible! (2006). 
     Life of a Jazz Singer contains some great vintage material of O’Day: versions of “Let’s Fall In Love” and “Boogie Blues,” as well as “Love For Sale” and “Trav’lin’ Light” with a Japanese big band. Also included are a lightning-quick “Tea For Two” and a sensuous “Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” from a 1963 Swedish performance. My personal favorite is a version of “Honeysuckle Rose” from a televised concert in Tokyo from 1963. The video quality is mediocre, but the performance is a swinging, joyous experience.

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