You know, we're a bit leery of turning this blog into a never-ending New Orleans funeral parade of obituaries for fallen masters: Johnny Griffin, Hiram Bullock, Lee Young, Joe Beck, Brother Yusuf Salim, Michael Berniker and Jo Stafford all left us in the last few weeks. (Whoops, wait, add Mr. Isaac Hayes and Chris Calloway.) Then there's the stuff that's a little too close for home, like Dave Carpenter, who will be honored with a free memorial concert at the Jazz Bakery this weekend. I've read many times over the impulse of many music writers to use this as a metaphor for how the art form of jazz is dying out -- which is preposterous. I'm not saying that jazz is not on shaky legs lately, especially here in Los Angeles. Just because, say, the last of four U.S. Army soldiers to discover Buchenwald died last week, does this mean World War II history is dying out? Last time I checked, it had two full walls at the local Borders.(Then again, the "Jazz" section was only one shelf, and hidden within the general "Music" section. Oh crap...)
No matter. A terrific new film opens next week in L.A. covering the LIFE of the late great certifiably nuts jazz singer Anita Belle Colton O'Day. I can say this because I spent a couple months with Ms. O'Day in 2001 working on an in-depth profile of her for Flaunt (back when such an article was even possible in that magazine -- thanks to Larry Schubert!). It was exhausting because the little lady was still so much alive and quite tempestuous. She HATED being interviewed; the only way I could pull it off was sign on as her driver and just watch her create chaos wherever she went. We got into a couple of screaming matches. After it was all done and the wreckage cleared way, she quietly thanked me for putting up with it all. Lady was a class act. Her singing was more akin to Charlie Parker's saxophone than Billie Holiday's throat. I always thought one of those old Apple computer adds -- the ones that said "Think Different" -- should include the famous shot taken by Bill Claxton of Anita leaning back and laughing, a crumpled score in her hand. My father used to say: Be like everybody else? What's the goddammed point?
If Anita O’Day didn’t invent the role of the hip white chick, she certainly held the patent on it. All you have to do is watch Bert Stern’s strange, almost hallucinatory 1958 documentary, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” to get a fairly good idea of O’Day’s particular talents. In the film, the Chicago-born singer—who died in 2006, at age eighty-seven—is dressed in a black hat and a tight-fitting cocktail dress, the epitome of cool. O’Day admitted to having been high on heroin during the concert, and she was unaware of being filmed. But her rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” is the hit of the movie, revealing her need to communicate how joyful, tough, smart, and shy she was, all at once. Those qualities are on display in Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden’s moving, heartfelt documentary, “Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer,” which opens on Aug. 15. In it, we see O’Day dismiss a journalist’s questions about her personal life with the skill she evinced as a singer: with utter clarity of intention and absolutely no room for bullshit.
That journalist, by the way, was the always-hep Bryant Gumbel; her reply to his smarmy insensitivity: "Well that's just the way it went down, Bryant."
Currently, there is no electronic copy of my Flaunt piece on Anita that Jonathan Lethem and Paul Bresnick chose for the 2002 edition of Da Capo Best Music Writing. (Whoop, ahem, let me just pick those names back up off the floor.) In the meantime, here's a brief (and blurry) excerpt from Google Book Search.