She isn’t quite a household name like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, but she’s considered their equal. The Knowledge Network puts the record straight tonight with Anita O’Day, The Life of a Jazz Singer, an unmissable documentary devoted to the hard-living vocalist, who died a year before the film’s release in 2007.
O’Day herself carries much of the film in a series of interviews. She’s lively, but there’s a strange disconnect between the rest home inmate recalling her life and times for the camera and the colossal personality seen in the film’s prodigious archival footage (although the she'd actually just finished recording her last album, Indestructible!, when directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden began assembling their film).
Aided by luminaries such as bandleader Gerald Wilson and producer Buddy Bregman, the film covers O’Day’s amazing career from her pioneering work with Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton, and on through the towering run of solo albums she cut for Verve. Nobody shies from telling it like it was, least of all O’Day herself, who speaks at length about her heroin addiction, prison time, and a near fatal OD. Slightly less alarming is the story of a botched tonsillectomy and how it resulted in the percussive vocal technique she’s known for.
Perhaps best of all is what the film does with that eternal question: what is jazz? A mindblowing clip from the ‘50s comes about as close as you’re ever likely to get to an answer, in which O’Day and her band take “Tea for Two” and then basically split the atom with it. Only slightly less glorious is the way O’Day bites the head off a despicably self-righteous Bryant Gumble in a post-heroin Today Show interview.
Anita O’Day, The Life of a Jazz Singer screens tonight (June 21) on the Knowledge Network, and again on Sunday (June 24)
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