I tend to find documentaries play better for me in an intimate home video setting as opposed to the more grandiose theatrical experience, and so despite considering myself a fan, it was with trepidation that I wandered into the uninspiredly titled Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2008). O’Day, who until her passing last year was widely considered the last great female jazz vocalist who could be mentioned in the same breath as Holiday, Fitzgerald and Vaughn, led the type of life one can easily imagine being made into a biopic that wins actresses Academy Awards—there is enough heroin, failed marriages, memorable music and Esther Blodgett-esque comebacks to supply material for a dozen industrious screenwriters. But always cutting through the stock-documentary checklist of events-to-cover is O’Day herself. A startling firecracker of a woman, one moment she’s the hard-boiled, sharp-featured stock blonde of a 40’s noir, the next she’s a folksy Barbara Jean (of Nashville fame) good-naturedly burbling away at god knows what.
The film is worth watching for the skewering of even her most wrenching memories with sly humor, but of primary importance: that voice! At first careening through the quarter note vocal pyrotechnics of a song like “Tea for Two” with dazzling ease, later there’s the ravaged voice that hints at countless personal stories and long private histories contained within each uttered word. And O’Day’s story ends up being inspirational, almost despite itself, as here is a woman who beat the odds and continued to do the thing she loved most until she almost literally dropped dead. Indestructible! was the title of her last album, released just three years ago—and it serves as a remarkable summation of O’Day herself (pity it wasn’t used as the title for the film itself).
Intrigued by the clip shown and O’Day’s pronouncement that the glowing notices she subsequently received in The New York Times was “the highlight of [her] life,” I tracked down Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960) and was more or less unprepared for the sheer greatness I beheld. O’Day wasn’t kidding when she emphasized that everyone was there at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958: Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson, Big Maybelle, Chico Hamilton and countless others not actually shown in the film—that these performances were captured at all for posterity is impressive enough, but then, what performances!
Interspersed between O’Day’s expert deconstruction of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Louis Armstrong’s onstage banter and Big Maybelle’s earthy growl is footage that turns the cameras upon the assembled crowds with fascinating results—several times a barely-glimpsed attendee makes as indelible impression as the performers themselves. This allows for unexpected sociological observation: the pre-Civil Rights crowd wasn’t neatly segregated as I had expected—young blacks down from Harlem sat interspersed with the Newport white elite in their expensive suits and pearls (sometimes reality can be so much more complex than the tidy demarcations made in history textbooks).
And then there’s Mahalia Jackson, who performs three songs to close out the film. Unassumingly radiant, watching her thunder through “Didn’t it Rain,” occasionally slapping together her hands for emphasis, is as euphoric an experience as anything I can imagine; then, at the close and the crowd roars and she bashfully keeps averting her eyes from the audience before murmuring “how you make me feel like a star!”—well, that’s just transcendence itself.