When you talk about the greatest jazz singers ever, you always mention the Big Three: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. No surprises. From there, though, where do you go? Let me suggest Anita O’Day.
Her first appearances with the bands of Gene Krupa, Woody Herman & Stan Kenton shattered the standard image of a female jazz singer as demure and beautiful. Though she was a knockout, she was “one of the guys” – a musician’s singer – able to scat incredibly fast lines as well as break down ballad standards like Charlie Parker. Her time with drummer Krupa, especially, developed her rhythmic and melodic improvising abilities to the point where she was bored with these bands and struck out to sing with small groups who could keep up with her.
Unlike many jazz singers, she found more success with jazz audiences than popular music fans, releasing almost 20 records for Verve in the 50’s & 60’s that established Anita as one of the most talented singers of the day. Sadly, Anita O’Day wouldn’t be scared away from another jazz staple, heroin addiction. Amazingly, after 15 years she managed to kick and had a successful comeback, mostly appearing in Japan. At age 86, Anita recorded one last album, appropriately titled Indestructable, and was earning a new audience rightfully impressed by the amazing stories of her life.
Now, the documentary finished just before her death – Anita O’Day: Life of a Jazz Singer – is out on DVD. I caught this film in the theater last Spring with a very small crowd, and I hope more people will see this movie and get a better idea of the amazing talents of this often overlooked jazz superstar. For me, this is how jazz movies should be made – it focuses on her developing skills as a singer, her love of jazz rhythms and improvisation, and her personality – surely one of the most interesting characters in a world full of them.
I just watched the DVD again this week and I’ll probably buy my own copy soon, and I highly recommend it to all fans of jazz, singers, and musicians of all stripes. Terry Gross’ interview with Anita from 1987 can be heard here:
and here’s the documentary trailer: