Anita O’Day documentary–jazz at its best

If you don’t know the music of jazz singer/musical genius Anita O’Day, you can fill a big gap in your life by seeing the video Anita O’Day, The Life of a Jazz Singer (got it off of Netflix of course).

Anita O’Day. This picture from an obit at

I don’t even know how I came across the video but I saw her name and said to myself, gotta see that one. She sang in a way that no one else ever has. She could sing loops around anyone who claims the title of jazz singer today. The only comparison that makes sense to me is Louis Armstrong. People also argue for Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, but I think O’Day goes somewhere else entirely.

Our copy of the video had distracting Japanese (or other Asian-language) titles but we didn’t want to take time out from the movie to fix the situation.


O’Day sang with Gene Krupa while still a teenager and kept singing while abusing heroin and alcohol for 20 years (and then she quit)! Through all that she kept singing better than anyone else, high or not. In the documentary, she argues that the drugs were a requirement of the jazz life, but she sang like an nightingale before she ever shot up. When I think of what it means to be a great jazz singer, she immediately comes to mind, fearlessly deviating from the score, improvising with wit and originality while not losing sight of the source material.

Among the highlights of the film for me, besides her singing (video above at 1958 Newport Jazz Festival), were clips of her being interviewed by Dick Cavett and David Frost and a clip of Leonard Feather describing her greatness. I never knew what Feather looked like but I read him for years in the New Yorker, so to see him was a profound fan moment for me.


O’Day died in 2006, but fortunately, since we live in a world of eternal recordings, we can still listen, see what she looks like, and get a sense of her quirky, somewhat abrasive toughness. This is not to be missed!