Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 17, 2008

Anita O’Day: the Life of a Jazz Singer

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 12:42 am

Last night I attended a press screening for “Anita O’Day: the Life of a Jazz Singer”. Like “Tis Autumn: the Search for Jackie Paris”, another jazz documentary, it is a work of love and necessary viewing for anybody who cares about America’s greatest cultural gift to the world. Robbie Cavolina, who co-directed the movie with Ian McCrudden, was Anita O’Day’s manager for the last six years of her life–she died in 2006 at the age of 87.

As was the case with Raymond De Felitta, the young director of the Jackie Paris film, Cavolina and McCrudden were spellbound by a much older artist. They followed O’Day around on her daily rounds, including trips to the race track (like fellow Los Angeleno Charles Bukowski, the singer was heavy into the ponies), and asked her questions about her life and career. The end result was 100 hours of footage that they turned into a truly eye-opening movie about a life in jazz.

Although not as famous as her African-American counterparts Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, Anita O’Day belongs to the pantheon of female jazz singers. Born Anita Colton in Kansas City, Missouri, she took the last name “O’Day” since it was pig latin for “dough”–an item in short supply during the Great Depression. Just like the dance marathon characters in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They”, O’Day participated in 24 hour endurance contests called the Walkathon. As she explains in her memoir “Hard Times, High Times” and also recounts in the documentary, Walkathons were a survival mechanism: “They feed you seven times a day and see that you get free medical care. Even if I don’t win, I ain’t gonna do bad with the money I make dancing, singing and selling pictures of my partner and me.”

O’Day began singing professionally in 1935 at the age of 16, shortly around the time she became the protégé of Dick “Lord” Buckley, the legendary hipster pothead comedian, who she first became acquainted with in Walkathon contests and whom she describes in the memoir as follows:

The self-ordained Lord Buckley…viewed all people as princes and princesses, lords and ladies, counts and countesses. Half-American Indian, half-British, the athletically inclined Buckley would climb the high skeletal structure above the contest floor and clown around, half-stoned, with slips and trips that would have spelled curtains for him if he’d made a miscue. You could only conclude that someone was watching over him. For that I was eventually thankful, because Dick Buckley was very rhythmical and he took an interest in my singing.

Even though O’Day was coming up in the music business when Holiday and Fitzgerald were at the top of their game, she found herself influenced by a singer generally not associated with jazz, namely Martha Raye, who would become the host of a popular TV slapstick comedy show in the fifties. From Raye, she got the idea that she could be a “presentation singer” which meant knowing how to use her body through gestures and dancing.

This knack soon made her a natural for performing as a lead singer with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman’s former drummer who had launched his own big band with the same combination of musicianship and showmanship that O’Day sought to achieve. She described Krupa this way:

Gene was as magnetic as a movie star, filled with wild exuberance as his raven-colored hair, flashing brown eyes and black suit contrasted with the snow-white marine pearl drums that surrounded him. His gum-chewing, facial gymnastics, tossing of broken sticks to the audience and general flamboyance visually complemented the Krupa sound that incorporated rolls, flams and paradiddles that reverberated throughout the theater.

As implied by the title of her memoir, O’Day experienced over 20 years of substance abuse, both heroin and alcohol. The movie mercifully allocates much less time to these matters than the memoir. Too often jazz movies have played up the suffering of jazz artists at the expense of their musical contributions, from Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” to Bertrand Tavernier’s “Round Midnight”. Cavolina and McCrudden focus on the great times that O’Day spent on the stage at places like the Newport Music Festival rather than in jail or hospitals, an altogether wise decision.

In addition to the great material featuring the always charming and loquacious Anita O’Day, they interview some of jazz’s top critics and musicians, from Phil Schaap to Annie Ross. The interviews are conducted at a very high level but don’t leave those with a casual knowledge of jazz in the dark.

One of the more interesting technical revelations in the movie is how O’Day achieved her uniquely vibrato-less delivery. It had everything to do with a mishap when she had her tonsils taken out:

I took whatever I could use from wherever I could find it. The thing that bugged me was that I couldn’t take more because I had a very little tone. I might never have figured out the reason but Al [Lyons, a friend] did When he asked why I didn’t have a uvula, I thought he was talking dirty. How should I know a uvula is a small tongue hanging down where the roof of the mouth meets the throat? When most people sing, they used the vibrations of the uvula to produce tone. I finally found I hadn’t had a uvula since I was seven when a careless doctor sliced it off while he was removing my tonsils

So I can’t get a sound with the air back there because there is nothing to vibrate it. That’s the reason I got into singing eighth and sixteenth rather than quarter notes Instead of singing, “Laaaaaaaaa,” I’d sing “La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la, etc., to keep it moving. People would hear me and say, There she goes again, but necessity explains my style. Whether June Christy and Chris Connor had the same doctor and lost their uvulas too, I don’t know, but they push that tone forward.

“Anita O’Day: the Life of a Jazz Singer” opens at Cinema Village on August 15th. Put it down on your calendar now since it is one of the finest jazz documentaries to have ever come along.

Movie website: http://www.anitaodaydoc.com/


  1. Louis
    I completely endorse your comments on this wonderful record of Anita O’Days life and art.
    I knew,shamefully enough, only little about O’Day but had cherished ever since I first saw it her wondrful appearance in Jazz on a Summers Day.
    Anybody with any interest in jazz would be a fool to themselves and a scandal to others if they miss the chace to see this film.
    I Saw it a couple of weeks ago when it showed as part of the Sydney Film Festival.
    So far it has not had a commercial release here but I am hoping that will happen. I rate it with Straight No Chaser as my favourite music docos.
    Greg Adler

    Comment by Greg Adler — July 17, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

  2. She was great.

    All of the jazz singers I’ve met, worship her.

    I’m a big time Ella fan. I think she had the most perfect voice in pop music history.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — July 18, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

  3. Please tell me that this will be available on DVD.

    Comment by Rosemarie Proulx — August 9, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

  4. I saw this a couple of days ago. I wasn’t at all familiar with Anita O’Day and I don’t consider myself much of a fan of jazz, but I loved it. Not just for aficionados, this is a great introduction to the lady, her era and her music.

    Comment by annulla — August 29, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  5. Hi!

    I must see this film because I’ve been told I sound like her. So, please see for yourself by checking out my YouTube performance of Summertime at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pippi+ardennia&search_type=&aq=f.

    Also, visit my website at http://www.pippiardennia.com to hear song title samples. Jazzin’ Up Your Fundraiser is a component of my business that uses my music philanthropically to benefit non-profit organizations. The most recent recipient of this component was a non-profit AIDS organization in Chicago.

    Ultimate goal is to have my CD’s sold throughout all of the independdent coffeehouses in the world with a portion of the proceeds going to the owner’s selected charitable organization.


    Comment by Pippi — October 13, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

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