The great jazz singer Anita O’Day operated in some far-out be-bop realm of her own, a small kingdom of dingy nightclubs and brute-force trios where she flashed her sharp, pretty teeth and her knowing cartoon eyes while living on the edge of music and even consciousness. In 2000, I was lucky enough to interview this extremely dangerous singer; I was told she’d be tired, and to try to keep it short. Then I saw her hippity-hop out of a conference room, a bird-like woman whose every extremity seemed to be quivering with pain and lust. “Cheek to cheek!” she barked at me. Awkwardly, I kissed both of her cheeks. “No!” she howled. “Cheek to cheek!” Then she pressed both of her cheeks to mine and laughed raucously. It was like putting my hand on a hot stove, then learning to like the sensation.
O’Day’s manager at that time, Robbie Cavolina, is one of the directors of Anita O’Day: The Life of A Jazz Singer, a new documentary about her life, and I remember him as quietly loving with her and attentive to her needs. The film he has made with Ian McCrudden takes us on a whirlwind tour of all things Anita, and it’s crammed with archival interviews, performances and talks they had with her on the road. Some of the older performance footage is in such bad shape that you can barely see O’Day, and that’s a shame, since her face and body are just as eloquent as her voice, but Cavolina and McCrudden make up for this by mimicking her best Verve album covers of the fifties, placing brightly colored electric lights over the murky footage of her risky vocal improvisations.
O’Day was raised in Chicago during the Depression. When she was having her tonsils out as a kid, a doctor accidentally snipped off her uvula, which is why she learned to use staccato, repeated notes with practically no vibrato when she sang; O’Day claimed that the missing uvula was the reason why she couldn’t sustain long phrases. Her teenaged years were spent entering barbaric dance marathons; then, in the forties, she toured with Gene Krupa’s band, having a big hit with Roy Eldridge on “Let Me Off Uptown,” with its daring interracial banter and Eldridge’s blistering, all-bets-off trumpet solo. A tour with Stan Kenton didn’t suit her as well (“In between sets, they didn’t smoke or drink, they read books!” Anita complained), and she eventually went out as a soloist. From the early fifties to the mid-sixties, O’Day came into her own as a lightning-fast song stylist and entered into an intense, symbiotic relationship with her drummer, John Poole, who got her hooked on heroin. In the documentary, O’Day recalls her first experience with the drug, saying that it was better than drinking and even better than sex. For almost twenty years, she lived the life of a junkie and had trouble with the law, but she also recorded her remarkable series of albums for Verve Records.
It was during her heroin years that O’Day really made her mark on jazz music. This documentary shows her as a cute band-singer of the forties, clowning with Krupa and Eldridge, but nothing can prepare us for her metamorphosis into “the Jezebel of jazz.” In a television program from what looks like the mid-fifties, O’Day does a version of “Body and Soul” that has to be seen and heard to be believed. This isn’t a singer singing a song: this is something else. Her musical instincts and appetites are so advanced that she moves beyond personal emotion (though she never stints on that), and into something resembling metaphysical speculation. She’s a singer doing “Body and Soul.” A thousand other singers have done “Body and Soul.” But O’Day seems to have walked into a door past human comprehension; she’s melding music and feeling, math and “one for my baby,” physics and desire. Heroin was the key to that door, and it nearly destroyed her; as she says, it destroyed Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and many of her contemporaries. But O’Day survived somehow, even after an overdose in the mid-sixties where she was pronounced legally dead.
This was a woman that lived her life so close to the edge for so long that “the edge” must have started to get a little creeped out by her. She was too much for a lot of people, and her own worst enemy, as she said many times. O’Day was a tough Chicago broad, but she was vulnerable, too; a friend of hers in this movie remembers Anita crying in the late sixties, just crying, and the friend felt that there was nothing to say that could possibly console her. O’Day was beyond consolation, beyond love, beyond anything that could make her secure. And she had some lean years; I have a friend who told me he went to see her sing in the eighties, and that only six people were in the audience. Still, she sang the hell out of her set for those six people. She was always getting a raw deal, and she knew it; she even welcomed it.
Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but that’s to be expected. Her personal life is a bit mysterious; there was a husband or two, who we learn little about (O’Day seems to have learned little about them herself). She’s very funny discussing one of her best albums, Anita Sings the Most, where she says she “lost” all of the songs to her accompanist Oscar Peterson, who played even faster than she sang. We hear testimonials to her later years by singers like Annie Ross and Margaret Whiting, but we don’t see or hear too much of her last club dates and recordings when she was in her eighties, after a period of poor health that left her incapacitated for years. I saw her play at a club on a double bill with Chris Connor, and it was a rugged experience. She had no voice left, really, but her musical ideas were still as outré as ever. “I got my own sound!” she’d told me, earlier in the day. “If you want to hear the melody, go see Patti Page!”
O’Day’s biggest brush with fame came when Bert Stern captured her out-of-this-world performances of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two” for his movie Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1958), a record of the Newport Jazz Festival. They put her on in the middle of the day, of course, and she played to a half-full, inattentive crowd. Dressed in a black cocktail dress, white gloves, glass slippers and a large black hat festooned with real white ostrich feathers, O’Day communes with the elements, the music, and Poole’s sexy drumming, lifting herself up higher and higher, breaking past the sound barrier and going further up, closing her eyes, baring her teeth, lifting her hands up in an ecstatic, every-nerve-tingling embrace of life. She’s offering us paradise, and she’s gone through hell to get it for us.
Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer showcases a series of such elating performances, any one of which would make it essential viewing; listening to her albums is essential, too, but actually seeing her sing is a transporting experience, and it lets us see that she paid close attention to her lyrics even when she was going as far out on a rhythmic limb as it’s possible to go. It also offers the vivifying spectacle of an aged Anita getting up in our face as she lays out “what went down” in her long, hard-driving life. The last time I saw her was around 2004, on the Upper East Side, of all places. She was waiting on a corner, carrying two big shopping bags. There she was, against all odds, a hep old lady dressed to the nines, bopping her head to a beat only she heard, ready to give you the finger or a sock in the jaw. Or a little jive-era “cheek to cheek.” She looked happy. In my head, I heard her sing, “Can’t you see-e…how happy we could…be-e-e-e-e….”
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.