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Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007)

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A tribute to jazz diva Anita O'Day, completed just weeks before her death in November 2006.

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Title: Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007)

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Credited cast:
Himself (archive footage)
Himself (archive footage)
Leonard Feather ...
Will Friedwald ...
Johnny Mandel ...
Anita O'Day ...
John Poole ...
Himself (archive footage)
George Wein ...
Gerald Wilson ...


A documentary look at the improvised life of Anita O'Day (1919-2006), singer and stylist whose timing, phrasing, interpretations, and unique sound put her among the finest vocalists of jazz. Interviews with her late in life are interspersed with archival footage of performances and old interviews as well as with comments by friends, arrangers, critics, and other musicians. She talks about singing without a uvula (sing eighth notes), of jail time for a marijuana arrest, of taking and kicking heroin, of finally making money after appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival, of loss, of a broken arm that almost cost her life, and of living in 4/4 time, one day at a time, smiling. Written by <>

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Plot Keywords:

jazz | broken arm | singing | heroin | singer | See more »


Documentary | Music



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Release Date:

30 April 2007 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer  »

Box Office


$200,000 (estimated)

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Did You Know?


First-ever feature documentary on the life of legendary jazz vocalist Anita O'Day. See more »


In one of the interview clips, Anita O'Day says that composer-arranger Gary McFarland died soon after the release of the album they made together, "All the Sad Young Men." McFarland actually lived another 10 years after the 1961 release of his record with O'Day, and died on November 2, 1971. See more »


Features Jazz on a Summer's Day (1959) See more »

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User Reviews

Excellent, but one major flaw
28 October 2011 | by (Maplewood, NJ) – See all my reviews

You will find it difficult not to enjoy the story of Ms O'Day's life. She was the ultimate survivor; a solid representative of Tom Brokaw's 'Greatest Generation,' sans the uniformed military service. In the documentary she is shown singing a marvelous rendition of Billie Holiday's composition "Travelin' Light," an appropriate choice because they were birds of a feather in so many ways.

The major flaw in the documentary comes from the comments of a couple of individuals interviewed in the film - most notably the daughter of pianist Joe Albany - who give the impression that there is a correlation between the musical freedom in modern jazz (aka 'bebop') and the personal mental "freedom" that Ms O'Day and other musicians derived from narcotics use; that is, the narcotics somehow contributed to Ms O'Day's ability or effectiveness in singing in a "freer" modern style. It's understandable how this correlation can be mistakenly made. It is a charge that has plagued jazz musicians since the birth of the music. And, with the prominent number of modern jazz musicians who either did drugs or were alleged to, most noticeably the undisputed leader of modern jazz, Charlie Parker, one can see how easy it is to conclude there must be some truth that the drugs somehow aided the playing.

Pianist Joe Albany experienced a similar extended drug addiction as did Ms. O'Day, so I fully respect the opinion of his daughter regarding drug use by musicians during this era. She speaks from the inside. However, it was Parker himself on several well known occasions who dismissed the idea that drug use somehow enhanced or benefited his playing. In addition, there are too many examples of excellent and Hall of Fame level modern jazz musicians who did not succumb to drug use or addiction, yet were able to reach an exceptional playing proficiency.

Ms O'Day's drug use seems due more to issues haunting her from her fractured childhood and adult interpersonal relationships as well as the inevitable pressures that come with a career as a public performer, more so than anything having to do with trying to improve her musicianship. Not surprisingly, this is a consistent theme for drug use by all demographic and socio-economic groups, be they jazz musicians or not. For most of these individuals, the "freedom" drugs provide is from the anxieties and pain associated with bad relationships and work and living pressures - the drugs provide no direct aide to learning or playing the music.

Performance pressures are often underestimated, but can be insidious. Singer Jeri Southern, for example, suffered deteriorating health from extreme anxiety attacks resulting from her fear of performing in public. Her problem was so overwhelming that at age 35, while still near the height of her popularity, she completely retired from performing and returned home to Nebraska for a more quiet life away from the music performance stage. Maybe an argument can be made that once drugs have been used to suppress the anxieties and pain, the musician is then 'freer' to concentrate on the music unencumbered. Maybe so. But the implication that drug use directly aided in the improved facilitation of the music is inaccurate and should not have been implied in the film with regards to Ms O'Day, since it is a misnomer musicians have been battling for decades. Jazz musicians who took drugs largely did so for the same reasons others in our society took drugs: to suppress anxieties, pressures, and pain brought about by a variety of individual experiences.

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