Film documentary "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer"

Anita O'Day performs at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. A new film profiles the jazz giant.
Anita O'Day performs at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. A new film profiles the jazz giant. (Aod Productions)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008

In the 1950s, Anita O'Day was such a big name in jazz that she rated a mention in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." She was the first artist recorded by Norman Granz for his fledgling Verve jazz label, and with her unforgettable performance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, she stepped into legend as a singer like no other, combining the rhythmic chops of Ella Fitzgerald with the hard-knocks soul of Billie Holiday.

Glib, uninhibited and ever so cool, O'Day makes a great story, and filmmakers Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden tell it well in the fascinating "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer," which opens today.

O'Day may not have been conventionally beautiful, but the camera loved her, even into old age. Cavolina and McCrudden selectively mine O'Day's dozens of short musical films and talk show interviews during her 65 years in the public eye. (The documentary has apparently been in the can for a while, because it doesn't mention O'Day's death on Thanksgiving Day two years ago at 87.)

She was discovered in 1940 by drummer Gene Krupa and a year later had a hit with "Let Me Off Uptown," a teasing duet with trumpeter Roy Eldridge in which she memorably shouted, "Blow, Roy, blow!" It was one of the first times a black man and a white woman appeared side by side in concert and on film, considered a daring, even dangerous, thing to do.

But O'Day made her biggest splash on July 6, 1958, when she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival, performing "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Tea for Two." Wearing a sleeveless black dress, a wide-brimmed hat and demure white gloves, she put on an amazing display of bebop vocal dexterity. Filmmaker Bert Stern couldn't take his eyes or his camera off her, and she became the centerpiece of his landmark concert film, "Jazz on a Summer's Day."

Stern's footage is a key part of the new documentary, but Cavolina and McCrudden dig deeper to search for the source of O'Day's musical talent -- what critic Will Friedwald calls "rhythmic exhibitionism" -- as well as the darker secrets of her life.

After two failed marriages and more than a dozen abortions over the years, O'Day had a long, unmarried liaison with her drummer, John Poole. He introduced her to heroin in the 1950s. She may have looked like a Newport society lady, but in a later "60 Minutes" interview O'Day admitted that she was almost certainly high on heroin during her Newport performance in 1958. Even when she was headlining at the world's top jazz clubs, making $2,500 a week, she was lurking on street corners, in search of her next fix.

The documentary gives a romantic sheen to narcotics as part of the "jazz life," even if O'Day herself says heroin never made her sing better. She spent time in jail and almost died of an overdose before finally kicking the habit as she was turning 50.

Years later, though, the tough-talking O'Day almost grows wistful as she recalls her first experience with heroin: "Hey, that's better than a martini. Hey, that's better than sex. I kinda like that."

As darkly compelling as these scenes are, Cavolina and McCrudden widen their focus to explain why O'Day matters in the first place -- her music. She says a doctor removing her tonsils accidentally sliced off her uvula, which left her unable to sing with a vibrato and forced her to concentrate on faster songs with fewer sustained open notes. As a result, she became the first true bebop singer, as agile and daring as any instrumentalist. She deserves to be ranked, according to the many critics and musicians interviewed in the film, among the five or so greatest jazz singers of all time. Of course, as the vintage footage shows, it didn't hurt that she looked great onstage, with her gowns, her gloves and her infectious involvement in the music.

O'Day kept singing for too long, but her sometimes painful late-in-life performances only enhanced her credibility as the ultimate jazz survivor.

Life wasn't always pretty for Anita O'Day, but this documentary captures the qualities that made her a great singer and an interesting character: She was honest, and she was fearless.

Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (91 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains profanity and drug references.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company