The Jazz.com Blog
November 14, 2009 · 3 comments
Thomas Cunniffe covers the world of DVDs for jazz.com. His most recent review here looked at Charles Mingus's Epitaph and Town Hall Concert. Now Cunniffe turns his attention to two videos featuring the late vocalist Anita O'Day. T.G.
In a vintage interview from the Today show, Bryant Gumbel questioned Anita O’Day about her life filled with rape, abortion, substance abuse and jail time. When he presses her about how she could stay upbeat in the face of such turmoil, she finally replies, “Well, that’s the way it went down, Bryant”. The quote shows up early in the O’Day documentary The Life Of A Jazz Singer and then turns up in full much later, and it aptly characterizes how the film handles the often difficult nature of its subject.
While O’Day momentarily loses her composure when talking about the drug-related death of arranger Gary McFarland (and in the interview out-takes, the deaths of Judy Garland, Zoot Sims and her father), she never expresses any remorse about the courses she chose for her own life. Even the other interviewees seem taciturn when it comes to making judgments about Anita’s lifestyle. Nothing is denied, yet no one really emphasizes the damage.
O”Day’s questionable life choices were not limited to drug abuse, of course. Oddly enough, some of her best performances were made between the mid 1950s and early 1970s, when she was in the midst of a heroin addiction. In her later years, long after she was sober, O’Day’s intonation—never a strong point for her—got worse and worse, and on her last recordings, she was barely able to croak out a melody. Yet the film staunchly defends her late performances as if they were the equal of her earlier work. As a long-time admirer of O’Day’s music, I can tell you that trying to listen to her late recordings is nearly impossible—her voice is so battered that all one can do is ask why is she still singing?
O’Day’s interview clips come from a variety of vintage sources, including 60 Minutes, Tomorrow With Tom Snyder and The Dick Cavett Show. By far, the best interviews of O’Day come from Billy Taylor’s 1990 profile of the singer for Sunday Morning (including several minutes of out-takes not used in Taylor’s piece). The filmmakers of the current documentary also interviewed O’Day, and while the information presented is essential, the footage is harder to watch due to uneven lighting and O’Day’s habit of suddenly going out of frame. The other interviewees include George Wein, Gerald Wilson, Margaret Whiting, Annie Ross, Will Friedwald, James Gavin and Phil Schaap. In one of the best sequences of the film, O’Day talks about her classic LPs for Verve, and each of the surviving arrangers are interviewed in turn, including Buddy Bregman, Russ Garcia, Bill Holman & Johnny Mandel.
There are plenty of fine performance clips and thankfully, the DVD includes the uninterrupted clips in the special features section. There are two soundies with Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge (“Thanks For The Boogie Ride” & “Let Me Off Uptown”), a forgettable ditty with Stan Kenton (“Tabby The Cat”), two renditions of “Let’s Fall In Love” (these two and a couple of other versions are brilliantly edited together in the main documentary), and versions of “Boogie Blues”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Love For Sale” and “Trav’lin’ Light” with a Japanese big band. Also included is the classic “Four Brothers” from the 1958 Timex jazz special, “Tea For Two” and a spellbinding “Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” from a 1963 Swedish performance, and the quintessential “Sweet Georgia Brown” from Jazz On A Summer’s Day. By far the most illuminating film clip is of O’Day’s version of “Body & Soul” from Art Ford’s Jazz Party. In the first chorus, her interpretation is so abstract that the pianist is momentarily thrown off-course. All is back in order within a few seconds, but O’Day reins in her interpretation for the rest of the performance, a fact she acknowledges when she says “This is for the piano player”.
The 1963 Swedish set is included complete on Anita O’Day: Live in ’63 & ‘70, from the latest set of Jazz Icons DVDs. The bookends of the Swedish program are the same two songs from Jazz On A Summer’s Day: “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea For Two”. While there are subtle differences between the Swedish and Newport performances, O’Day sticks to her well-worn arrangements. However, the disc includes two versions of “Let’s Fall In Love” that are even better than the versions on The Life Of A Jazz Singer. It seems that this Arlen classic was a constant source of inspiration for O’Day and both the Swedish version and the one from the companion Oslo concert include rare half-chorus scat solos (she usually scatted 4 bars at a time in exchanges with the instrumentalists). The Oslo concert also includes a splendid medley of the Beatles classic “Yesterday” and the Jerome Kern standard “Yesterdays”, and a beautiful rendition of “I Can’t Get Started”. The closers are the old standbys “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea For Two”, but while O’Day acknowledges their presence in Jazz On A Summer’s Day, the performances in Oslo bear only passing resemblances to those recorded 12 years earlier in Newport or 7 years earlier in Stockholm.
Like Jackie Paris, Anita O’Day died before the release of the documentary made about her. However, unlike Paris, O’Day has many recordings still in print, so those who want to hear more O’Day have plenty of choices. The Verve recordings are uniformly excellent, and all of them are still available as single discs. There was also a Mosaic 9-CD set of the complete Verve recordings, but that set is now out-of-print, so the only hope of getting a copy is to find someone willing to part with theirs. Considering the intense adoration of Anita O’Day’s fans, that’s not too likely.
ANITA O’DAY: THE LIFE OF A JAZZ SINGER AOD Productions 101819. 91 minutes, plus 91 minutes bonus material. Directed by Robbie Cavolina & Ian McCrudden. With Anita O’Day, Phil Schaap, Margaret Whiting, George Wein, Gerald Wilson, Joe Wilder, John Pietranowicz, Will Friedwald, Billy Taylor, Annie Ross, Freeman Gunter, John Cameron Mitchell, Denny Roche, Mark Morris, James Gavin, Amy Albany, Charles Britton, Maynard Sloane, Ken Druker, Buddy Bregman, Russ Garcia, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, Bert Stern, Nancy Fields O’Connor, Mary Sellers, Dr. David Boska, Karen Kramer, Eddie Locke & Joe Franklin.
ANITA O’DAY: LIVE IN ’63 & ’70 Jazz Icons 2.119015. Sweet Georgia Brown, Let’s Fall In Love, A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, Fly Me To The Moon, Honeysuckle Rose, Green Dolphin Street, Tea For Two. Anita O’Day (vocals), Göran Engdahl (piano), Roman Dylag (bass), John Poole (drums). Stockholm; June 25, 1963. Let’s Fall In Love, Yesterday/Yesterdays, Four Brothers, I Can’t Get Started, Sweet Georgia Brown, Tea For Two. Anita O’Day (vocals), George Arvanitas (piano), Jacky Samson (bass), Charles Saudrais (drums). Oslo; October 21, 1970.
This blog entry posted by Thomas Cunniffe