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Anita O’Day without question was one of the most talented female jazz vocalists to ever live. Also without question, she was controversial and battled substance abuse demons throughout most of her life. Directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden, who along with Melissa Davis produced the film Anita O’Day The Life of a Jazz Singer, talked candidly with Riveting Riffs Magazine, about the singer’s life and the making of the documentary, during two separate conversations. The film will have a limited cinematic release on August 15th in New York City and on August 22nd in Los Angeles.

Cavolina, was the recipient of a Grammy Award in 1996, for art direction on Joni Mitchell’s album Turbulent Indigo and also directed two short Mitchell documentaries, Joni Mitchell Hits and Misses and Shine. He recalls his first meeting with Anita O’Day. “I first met her at the Vine Street Bar and Grill in Hollywood. A woman named Susan Tyrrell was asked to come and meet her, because she was going to possibly play her (in a feature film). I went with Susu (Tyrrell) and Anita was drunk, while she was performing. She was really out of it. It was like, ‘Oh my, is this a hardcore jazz lady? What is going on here?’ Her manager told me, ‘She won’t be drunk tomorrow. Susu tells me that you are a photographer. Could you come back and take pictures tomorrow?’ I called my dad up and I said to him, ‘I am at this jazz club and there is this old lady singing. She is drunk. Do you know who she is?’ He told me that Anita O’Day was a legend. I asked him if she was really that good and he said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ At the time Susu had a book of hers called High Times Hard Times and I asked her if I could read it. I read the book and I was blown away by her story. I thought, ‘boy could I make that into a film.’ That is when I (first) got the idea.”

“I went back the next night (to see Anita O’Day), and she was not drunk. She was seventy-three at the time, and I have never in my life heard a young person, old person or middle age person sing the way that this woman sang. Not only did she knock the house down, but she was unbelievable, in the way that she sounded and with what she was doing on stage. I took pictures that night and when I went back the next week to give them to her, we struck up a friendship,” says Cavolina, relating his 1992 encounter with the jazz legend.

Ian McCrudden says, “I met Anita when I went to see her at the Atlas Café. It was through Robbie, and at that point, he wasn’t working with her. It was in ’96 or ’97. He said that I had to check this lady out. I knew her music, a little bit, but I wasn’t an aficionado (however) I was into jazz. When I went to see her for the third time, they were showing old clips of her singing. I thought from that point on, that it was an amazing story. I became interested, as someone who was primarily a filmmaker.  I have made seven feature films. I thought that it would be really interesting to try and make a documentary.”

Cavolina and McCrudden continued with their filmmaking careers, with McCrudden hooking up with Melissa Davis to found Elan Entertainment. The duo produced the critically acclaimed movie Islander in 2007. Davis’ other film credits include the 2008 production of The Things We Carry, Trespassers (2006), and Elan Entertainment is currently developing Swedish Midsummer Comedy, a co-production with Casa Nova Films and Cigar Diaries, an action adventure film.  In addition to his work on Islander and Trespassers, McCrudden also directed The Big Day which starred Julianna Margulies, Mr. Smith Gets a Hustler and Trailer—The Movie. McCrudden has also directed several plays and written numerous screenplays.

Cavolina reunited with Anita O’Day, when, “In 1999 I found out that she was very ill, so I phoned her manager to ask if I could go over to see her. He said sure come on over and he said by the way the rights (to a film) are available. I sold everything that I had (to obtain the rights). I had just started a little editing company, so I thought I could make a film.  Anita and I became friends and I got close to her. I started studying her and listening to all of her records. I found everything that I could about her and watched all her video tapes so that I could really understand her. Then I read the book (High Times Hard Times) and I (initially) thought that I was going to make it into a feature film, a biopic. Later, when Ian came into the picture in 2003, he said that I should make the documentary, because it would seed the picture. He told me to do the documentary first. I asked Anita if she would want us to do that and she said ya” 

As Cavolina became more involved with Anita O’Day and in her later years acted as her manager, McCrudden and Davis’ interest in making a documentary grew. McCrudden says, “Melissa raised some financing pretty quickly. It all began with seeing Anita O’Day singing, and feeling that there was a story there. It was a little rough shod, because in some of her shows she was drunk. I was however, interested in this person who continued to do her art, as though it was her whole life.”

The two producer / directors could have spent more time focusing on the more sordid details of Anita O’Day’s life but just as they were not out to glam up who she was, neither were they intent on only exploring her addictions and what at times could amount to destructive behavior. They set out instead to create a balanced, but realistic movie which possesses some stunning archival film footage of the singer’s performances, including one section of the film where four separate clips of her singing, “Let’s Fall In Love,” are presented in a montage.

“We couldn’t decide which one (video clip of “Let’s Fall In Love”) to put in, so I said to Ian let’s put them all in. She was giving Dr Billy Taylor a lesson on improvisation, so I thought why not show it all, because she is doing it four different ways.,” says Cavolina.

For his part, Cavolina did not want Anita O’Day Life of a Jazz Singer to reflect what he had watched in numerous other jazz documentaries. “I had seen every single jazz documentary on the planet. I cried while watching Louis Armstrong’s and Chet Baker’s was so, so sad. The stories of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker were also sad. I thought these guys weren’t sad. Not to diss documentary filmmakers, because I think they want to tell a story, and yes if you put their stories on paper, a lot of the things that these people went through is sad, but they were brilliant people, who were able to do one of the most difficult things, which is to improvise music, with instruments that most people can’t even play.”

Cavolina remembers, “I asked Anita one day, what jazz is and she said, it is having the ability to improvise, make it up as you go, and to be good at it. She lived her life one hundred percent for music. She was like Vincent Van Gogh, who just painted, painted and painted. She said, ‘I got good, because I just did it, did it and did it.”

Both directors made sure that any comments that were made about Anita O’Day’s use of heroin and alcohol abuse came from archival footage of her interviews.

“It was fairly well documented in her own book that she struggled with substance abuse and had multiple abortions. The book was a little bit of a tell all.  The decision as to how to handle it was taken from what she would talk about herself. If you notice, in the movie, we do not have anyone else speculating or gossiping about her use of drugs. You see what she says about it, either to an interviewer like Tom Schneider, Dick Cavett or Harry Reasoner.  The thing that I would say about Anita is she didn’t glamorize it or think that it was cool. She is not proud, but on the other hand, I don’t think that she is regretful. The trick was to try and show it the way that she sees it,” says McCrudden.

Anita O’Day’s highlight years belong to another generation when she became the first female singer to record her first solo project with Verve Records in 1954. More than thirty of her hit songs are featured in this film, tunes such as, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Body and Soul,” “Boogie Blues,” “Tabby the Cat,” “Angel Eyes,” and “Pennies From Heaven.” The songs and performance clips revive fond memories for those who are old enough to have enjoyed O’Day’s music during her heyday and they introduce a new generation of jazz fans to her music for the first time.

“I feel that a lot of the jazz coming out now does not have a real understanding of what the art is. I think that this is the way that people can see the real deal. She was really doing something special, that a lot of people were not doing. She had a life to what she did. She could do a ballad like nobody else. She would just tell the story and make the music tell the story and without a lot of opinions or the flavor of the day. If a song was slow and she wanted to do it fast, but was told that she couldn’t do it, she would say, ‘Do you want to make a bet?’ She was like an improvisational scientist. She had such a good ear, and such a good sense for putting things in the right places and for working with the right people who could do that,” says Cavolina.

Unless you are a history buff or enjoy biographies, chances are you do not watch a lot of documentaries, because many of them tend to lack imagination and are to be quite frank, often they plod along. Cavolina credits McCrudden’s creative storytelling and his ability to think outside the box for largely contributing to the entertainment value of Anita O’Day The Life of a Jazz Singer.

“We didn’t have a script. I would be in the editing room with Robbie and figuring out how to make it into a real story, not just venting the facts and having talking head interviews. We also poured over all the musical footage, absorbed the lyrics, when the records were made and what was going on in her life (at the time). We wanted to hook the audience into a parallel story, which was being told through the performances. I studied those performance clips, like you would in a narrative feature. I think that our approach was unique. Certainly, her interviews reveal her somewhat too. I think that approach is a little different than people who may just throw a song in here or there, because they feel it is time add a song. Performance works in a movie, because it is subliminal and it is not because of any particular line that the performer had. It starts to build on you and you get a feel for the person,” explains McCrudden.

We have just barely scratched the surface of this splendid film and if you live in New York City or Los Angeles, you owe it to yourself to go out and see Anita O’Day The Life of a Jazz Singer. If you do not live in one of those two cities, then we encourage you to watch this space as details become available about the DVD release, which as we understand it, will feature bonus footage.

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This interview by Joe Montague  published July 18, 2008, and is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved