Monday, September 28, 2009

Audacious O'Day

Anita O'Day at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival

I'm an enormous fan of jazz singers. I aspire to be one myself. My music collection is testimony to this passion. I caught the singing bug in the early 1980s. It was during this period that I devoted myself to studying the Great American Songbook. Drawn to this emotionally powerful music by my mother's death, I've never let go. I began by completely familiarizing myself with the repetoire of Sinatra, Bennett, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short. Over the years I've enjoyed many more singers, and I'm constantly on the lookout for ones I've neglected or didn't know about. Put Anita O'Day in the former camp.

Until I fell in love with her by watching the recent documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, I kept her at a distance because she struck me as a jazz critic's favorite, but not the People's Choice. From what I'd heard of her, she had a pleasant tone reminiscent of Chris Connor or June Christy, but she departed from the melody too freely for my taste, either by scatting or making her voice like an instrument. I never found it good storytelling, which to me is the sine qua non of excellent singing.

But now that I've heard her story, it will enrich my listening to her considerably. What a life! The documentary chronicles O'Day's rise as a singer for Stan Kenton and a soloist in the 1950s. The television clips from this period make compelling viewing: she is so completely in charge as a singer, giving color to songs and providing fascinating tonal interplay with the musicians accompanying her. The pinnacle of her career--an appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival captured gorgeously on film--has her tearing up the song "Sweet Georgia Brown". Oh, to look out at the audience digging her that day. A total Mad Men moment!

You'll learn that Anita O'Day had a 40 year or so drug-and alcohol-besotted relationship with her drummer, John Poole. You'll see her interviewed by Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, and Bryant Gumbel and through it all looking and sounding marvelous despite her troubles. She is so completely no-nonsense and real. Lord, I'd have loved to slam down a few while talking to her!

The documentary is fast-paced with shifting and colorful graphics to compensate for the occasional grainy archival footage and the inevitable talking heads. I found it all mesmerizing. If you do too, may I also recommend a DVD showing O'Day at peak performance during the 1980s: Anita O'Day--Live at Ronnie Scott's in London.

I'll be looking for her vinyl in my used record stores. She was a treasure!

1 comment:

Bonnie Lass said...

Jeff, I saw the O'Day documentary this summer and LOVED it. But I wonder if I'd like the vocal without the visual and the intriguing life story. If you think I would, please bring some of Anita's music to our next bookgroup. See ya soon, Bonnie