Although she's generally acknowledged among jazz enthusiasts as being one of the great female jazz voices of the 20th century, the late Anita O'Day never considered herself to be a singer: In her own humble opinion, she was a song stylist. She lacked the voice of say, Sarah Vaughn -- she blamed her lack of tone on a slip of a surgeon's scalpel during a routine tonsillectomy that accidentally removed her uvula -- but she had wildly inventive phrasing and impeccable timing. She was, in short, a jazz genius and true innovator of the art form, and she also lived the kind of life one only reads about in the hardest of hardboiled novels or her own celebrated 1981 memoir, High Times, Hard Times. This 92-minute documentary from Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden goes light on the sordid details of her infamous private life, but offers what her fans came to expect from the "Jezebel of Jazz": great music.
Born Anita Belle Colton to a hard-drinking father and a cool, distant mother who never expected her daughter to amount to much, O'Day first made a name for herself as a contestant on the grueling walkathon circuit where contestants would walk until they dropped for the entertainment of Depression-era audiences. Occasionally, some would stop and literally sing for their supper. After changing her last name to "O'Day" -- Pig Latin for what she'd hoped to make a lot of as a singer -- her first major break came when she was recruited by drummer Gene Krupa to be the girl singer -- the "canary" -- for his popular swing band. Trading hipster jive repartee with black trumpeter Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge -- and crossing a major racial barrier in the process -- O'Day had her first big hit with "Let Me Off Uptown" ("Say, Joe!" "Waddaya mean 'Joe"? My name's Roy!" "Well c'mere Roy and get groovy!"), although she saw none of the profits. Success with Kupra would lead to a short-lived gig singing for the less swinging Stan Kenton, then a solo career -- the best of it captured on recordings for the legendary Verve label -- that would not only establish her as one of the leading ladies of jazz, but redefine the meaning of "cool." A pot bust in California marked her as a shady lady -- not necessarily a bad thing in jazz circles -- but it would prove to be the beginning of a serious problem. After meeting drummer and hardcore junkie John Poole -- in many ways her perfect creative partner -- O'Day soon became a serious user herself, with a full-blown habit that would last 15 years before nearly killing her in 1968.
Cavolina shared a personal connection with O'Day -- he served as her manager from 1990 until her death in 1996 -- and the film is, unsurprisingly, an affectionate homage to a friend who was as cool as she was hardboiled. (One life-lesson she offers in the film sounds like something straight out of Jim Thompson: "All you can do in this world is learn to be a good loser.") Cavolina and McCrudden don't dwell on the sordid details -- the heroin addiction, the drug busts, the abortions, the two failed marriages, the rape -- and their timeline isn't always clear (frustratingly, they also fail to identify the date and source of many of the vintage film clips they've included). In the end, a more apt subtitle would be "The Music of a Jazz Singer," as their film offers plenty of what O'Day's fans came to expect: great music. Anyone requiring more information about O'Day's endlessly fascinating personal life are directed to High Times, Hard Times, an absolute must-read written in the great lady's own, unmistakable voice.
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