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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Gene says, 'You can swing, you better come with us." ~ Anita O'Day

"This is the story about a woman who wanted to be a jazz singer, and refused to let anything stop her. It's the story of Miss Anita O'Day. We can hear most of you say, 'Anita who?"" ~ Harry Reasoner, 60 Minutes, 1983.

"Gene says, 'You can swing, you better come with us." ~ Anita O'Day

I'm not sure who the hell would say, "Anita who?"  Certainly nobody I would know or love, or would want to know or love for that matter.

The 2007 documentary Anita O'Day - The Life of a Jazz Singer is finally available on DVD.  If you have any love at all for the lady whose autobiography - High Times, Hard Times -  Mr. D. recommended not once, not twice, but three times on Theme Time Radio Hour, you'll want The Life of a Jazz Singer.

You'll want that autobiography, too, if you haven't read it.  Since I'm on a recommendation kick, you also want Jazz on a Summer's Day, another indispensable documentary about the 19 and 58 Newport Jazz Festival where, looking like she had just arrived from a lawnside cocktail party, Anita's take on  "Sweet Georgia Brown" is one of the finest performances ever captured in jazz.

As High Times, Hard Times relates, Anita O'Day's life was a jazz life. She lived hard, worked hard, loved not wisely, fought addictions, was often broke, and occasionally had too much money for her own good. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of Life of a Jazz Singer, as remarkable as O'Day's life was (she passed away at age 87 in 2006, shortly after her last interview for the documentary), more remarkable was the fact that she survived it.

One of the reasons that Our Host might admire Anita O'Day, is, like him and like Frank Sinatra, she was a serious musician who spent a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of music. "I had very little tone," she mentions in both autobiography and documentary. "when Al {Lyons] asked me why I didn't have a uvula, I thought he was talking dirty." Turns out a careless doctor had sliced off her uvula during a tonsillectomy when O'Day was seven, and she had to figure out a workaround when she found she couldn't do "proper" jazz phrasing... even though she didn't know why.

But she learned.

Bob Dylan played Anita O'Day six different times over the three seasons of Theme Time Radio Hour, including "Ten Cents a Dance" in the "Dance" episode, "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine," in the "Tears" show,  "Let Me Off Uptown" ("New York"), "Johnny One Note" ("Number One"), "Skylark" ("More Birds"), and "I Can't Get Started" ("Beginnings, Middles, and Ends"). Obviously, he knows something.  Go take a look at Anita O'Day - The Life of a Jazz Singer to find out what.


Unknown said...

Watched this docu last night--already available from Netflix--it's great! Not too many talking heads and lots of music. So interesting to hear a working musician talk about her craft. And the Newport outfit--fabulous! Great hat.

Anonymous said...

I watched this captivating documentary and recommend it enthusiastically. I was intrigued a few years back by James Gavin’s reflections on Ms. O’Day’s considerable talent in the wake of performances at Los Angeles’s Atlas club. I picked up Pick Yourself Up and discovered what the fuss was about. Nearly everything she recorded from 1955-1964 is gold, so the wonderful documentary offers but the tip of the iceberg.