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Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer
RED Distribution
Review by: Larry Thomas

The most casual music listeners even if not jazz fans, will say they’ve heard of Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. Very few will raise their hands in recognition of Anita O’Day.

O’Day had an astonishing and quite prolific career in music, beginning with singing with big bands in the 1940s, including those of Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton. Her life and music are chronicled in the documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer. One comment I read about this affecting film said “there’s nothing new here about O’Day.” Since most people know nothing about her anyway, then the film has plenty new to offer. As quoted in an interview Anita O’Day said that in order to order to perform the music, one must “live the jazz life.” And that she did.

Anita O’Day made the successful transition from big band to jazz in the 1950s. She also managed to stumble into the all-too-familiar jazz life pitfalls along the way…a 16-year heroin habit, four failed marriages, bad surgery which affected her voice, and more. But despite all this, she had a following, which kept her going, and even gained a brand-new fame in Japan which managed to keep her recording well into her eighties.

Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer is only a ninety-minute film, but it packs in some great concert and archival footage. Many of the tunes represented are more than the usual ten-bar sound bites found in films like this, so you do get a sense of her talent and style. There are archival clips of the likes of Louis Armstrong, and interviews with Gerald Wilson, Johnny Mandel, and O’Day herself. The footage and comments from the interviewees indicates that the life and times of Anita O’Day are maybe even the stuff of a biographical feature film. It would be gratifying to see a new, first-class production about “living the jazz life.” It would be even more gratifying for it to be a commercial hit, and bring more people back to jazz. At least we can all dream.

As often happens in our fair city, a film like this never sees the light of a movie screen. But it’s now available on DVD for you to enjoy. Hopefully, you’ll learn something new, enjoy some great music, and start exploring more films about jazz. Especially recommended is the documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day, which features O’Day and Armstrong, along with Chuck Berry and more at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Commercial broadcasting and recording outlets usually take the position that jazz is passé. Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer demonstrates that genius and talent, no matter from what generation it may be, is always worth enjoying.

I can’t say for sure, but I would not bet money that you’d find this on any shelf in the local rental stores. It may be available to purchase at one of the bookstore outlets, but likely you’ll have to rent it from NetFlix, or a similar service. But if you like jazz, it’s well worth the effort.


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