Force of personality and terrific vintage performance clips make a keeper of “Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer,” which chronicles the rocky yet royal road of the titular bebop queen. Crisply assembled docu by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden will face the same uphill battle for theatrical distribution accorded most jazz docs these days. But it’s a natural for further fest play, artscaster sales and DVD distribution wherever music aficionados recall “America’s No. 1 Swing Songstress.”
Many among the celebrity fans, scholars and fellow musicians interviewed here consider the late O’Day one of the “Three Queens” of classic jazz — notably, the only white one next to late legends Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. She appears healthy but frail in the most recent footage (shot as she approached her 90th birthday), a salty senior who’s survived against considerable odds.
These include rape, several abortions, arrests, alcoholism, four failed marriages and 15 years of heroin addiction, though only the latter is explored at length here. She shrugs off such travails as part and parcel of “the jazz life,” with its taxing travel, late hours, party atmosphere and easy access to drugs.
O’Day hardly views herself as a victim, however. She’s a tough broad who was long viewed as one of the boys in the overwhelmingly male jazz field. She still talks like a hard-boiled, old-school hipster.
Raised in less than genteel circumstances by showbiz parents, she was discovered by Gene Krupa in 1940, scoring hits with his big band and Stan Kenton’s before playing with the smaller combos in which she could let her improv skills fly. She served four months for pot possession and emerged with her allure only enhanced as “the Jezebel of Jazz,” a reputation that was more deserved than her fans knew.
Far from ruining her art, however, the drug for a time seemed to be enable it. There’s plentiful footage of O’Day’s dazzling vocal pyrotechnics in TV appearances and a memorable segment of the classic concert pic “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” (1959). O’Day also recorded a series of hit albums for Verve, smack (no pun intended) in the middle of her userdom. It took a near-fatal O.D. to induce her to quit.
O’Day relates such true-confession stuff in frank terms. Emphasis here isn’t on lurid biographical details, however, but on the brilliance of the subject’s talent. Her supple, smoky vocals, at times exhilaratingly speedy in bebop phraseology are the heart of this admiring film.
Performance clips are variable in terms of image quality, though sound is generally high-grade. Co-directors make excellent use of split-screen effects in moments that measure the wide timespan of O’Day’s career. Tech package is pro.