THE JEZEBEL OF JAZZ
Arguably the last of the great Swing-Era female vocalists passed away on
November 23rd, 2006.
Anita O'Day's singing is like a ride in a fast jet; the melody soars up and
around and almost out of sight, but always returns to its starting place. Other
vocal improvisers similarly perform vocal gymnastics
without a net; but all too often they trail off into the ether. O'Day's flights
of musical fancy may threaten to veer into the blue, but her audiences rightly
trust her to come back to earth safely. But while the listener and O'Day are up
there in the stratosphere, it's one hell of a cool, swinging ride.
I'm not a singer, I'm a song stylist. I made my own style
and that's even better. That's why I got into rephrasing and songs with a lot of
— Anita O'Day
Her whole life long she rarely took on ballads, favoring instead upbeat,
swinging numbers. O'Day claimed that she couldn't hold long, sustained notes due
to a doctor's mistake — he cut off her uvula during a tonsillectomy — thus she became the archetype of
the energy-packed, nearly over-the-top big band singer. She also led the way for
white jazz singers who didn't sound black. Her voice and delivery were cool
enough. Her sense of humor, technical proficiency, trend-setting use of dynamics
and not a little overt sexuality earned her raves from the very beginning of her
career, in 1939. What's amazing is that her voice was so similar to other female
big-band singers; it's how she used it that got her noticed.
Born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago on October 18, 1919, she changed her name
when she began competing in dance marathons. Immersed in swinging popular music,
she had plenty of time to consider singing along. And sing along she eventually
did. Some of her first big breaks were in fact failures; Benny Goodman didn't
care for her style of improvisation, Raymond Scott couldn't tolerate her scatting.
JUST ONE OF THE GUYS
Her first singing gig at a club, the "Off-Beat Club" in Chicago, was a smash
hit. She received a standing ovation her first night. She came to the attention of
drummer Gene Krupa, who hired her in 1941. He also hired trumpeter Roy
Eldridge at that time and the three of them clicked. For the rhythmic O'Day to
be able to associate, much less improvise, with one of the greatest time-keepers
in jazz was a thrill for both parties (not to mention audiences nationwide). For three delightful years
she swung with the best of the way-out crowd. No aloof diva, O'Day spent her
time on the bus with the other members of the band and soon was embraced by them
as an equal. She played poker, drank with them, and even dressed in a uniform similar to the male band members' during performances; doing away with the sequined gown affected by most girl-singers of the day.
The band's break-up in 1943 found O'Day teaming up with "Mr. Modern Jazz"
Stan Kenton. She spent a year with the Kenton Band, but complained that Kenton's
style didn't swing. Worse, she found fault with Kenton's arrangements,
particularly his neglect of the all-important up-beat (a jazz rhythmic nuance). It just
The dynamic range of her voice may be smaller than any other jazz
singer's except Blossom Dearie's, but her flexibility with it allows her
to scat, slide and skitter through a song the way a cat's tongue laps up
— Charles Michener
Her farewell to Kenton was "It's been real nice and bye. Man, I've been on
the road all my life, I'm not going back."
By 1946, she'd decided that a solo career was what she'd like to do. She
picked up drummer John Poole as part of her combo. Poole stayed with her for
Anita O'Day didn't beat around the bush with people. She said what she meant
— never with intentional cruelty. And she lived life hard; the party looked like
it would never stop for O'Day until she was convicted of Heroin possession in
1953. She said she was framed, but it later became common knowledge that she and
heroin had become intimate friends (ironically, after the 1953 incident)
and she never really kicked the habit. What saved her was what saved her peer
and mentor Billie Holiday, her fabulous style. Legions of dope-addicted
jazz singers got their chances with the finest bands and combos, but only truly
stellar talents like O'Day, Holiday, and Charlie Parker were reluctantly hired
and re-hired by the star-makers. The rest of them ended up shining shoes or
checking coats at the jazz clubs of Chicago, New York and St. Louis.
Despite her differences with Stan Kenton, her most popular recording yet was
1944's million-selling "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine."
In 1945, Down Beat named O'Day its Top Girl Band Vocalist, and 22 jazz
critics voted her Outstanding New Star in an Esquire magazine poll.
In the early '50s, she recorded on jazz impresario Norman Granz's Clef and
Norgran labels and, beginning in the mid-1950s, she recorded a series of
well-received albums for Granz's new Verve label, including "Anita" (1955 -
Verve's first issue), "Anita O'Day Sings the Winners" (1958), "Cool Heat" (1959)
and "All the Sad Young Men" (1961).
She performed at the 1958 Newport
Jazz Festival alongside Thelonius Monk, George Shearing, Dinah Washington,
Louis Armstrong and others. Photographer Bert Stern filmed the performances
and the documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day" was a huge hit in the U.S., Europe,
and Japan. O'Day's exposure to Japanese jazz-lovers via the film caused Japanese
releases of her recordings to sell vigorously. Despite many claims that her 1958
Newport appearance was one of her finest; those close to her all agree she was
high on narcotics during the entire festival. In the jazz world, however, plenty of memorable performances are given under the influence of mind-altering substances, for all that's worth.
Her years at Verve were her heyday - "Anita O'Day Swings Cole Porter with
Billy May;" "Cool Heat;" Time for Two;" and the eerily, appropriately titled
"Pick Yourself Up" were all big hits for Granz's new record label. By 1964,
O'Day parted ways with Verve, due in part to her declining health and declining
voice. By 1967 she suffered a physical breakdown that some say impacted her for
the rest of her life. Sources for this writeup differ as to the date of a
near-fatal heroin overdose; some 1969; most 1966. She claimed in 1973 that she'd
"kicked the habit cold turkey." But her friends and collaborators knew that
alcohol had replaced the narcotics as O'Day's drug of choice.
Ever resilient, she received accolades at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival and
thereafter recorded for a decade on her own "Emily" label, despite the fact that
her voice and stamina were a shadow of what they were in her heyday.
THE SINGER'S EFFORT AT PROSE IS A HIT
In 1981 she penned an autobiography, "High Times, Hard Times," that was
stunningly candid, and a great read. Jazz critic Will Friedwald dubbed the work
"one of the great jazz memoirs." While many celebrities would try to underplay
or put some kind of a "spin" on a significant life-event such as spending time
in jail for narcotics possession, O'Day dealt deeply and honestly with what
went through her mind during those times as well as during the best of times.
The New York Times Book Review had nothing but praise for her opus. It
languished on the bestseller list for months.
Her health suffered yet another major setback when she fell down the stairs
of her California home in 1996. The fall left her wheelchair-ridden for a year,
and for many months she feared she'd lost her singing voice. The moment she
could get up and stand on her own, she asked for, and received, a club date in
California and kept on singing.
In April of this year she released her final album, "The Indestructible Anita
Her manager, Robbie Cavalina, told the press that shortly after she was
recently hospitalized with pneumonia she told him "get me outta here!" He did -
after she was treated not only for pneumonia but food poisoning and blood
disorders as well. She died in her sleep days later at home.
Obituary, Los Angeles Times:
Bloom, Ken: "The American Songbook" New York, 2005, Black Dog & Leventhal
Anita O'Day Official Website:
All Music Guide biography by Scott Yanow:
O'Day, Anita with Eells, George: "High Times, Hard Times" New York, 1984,
Putnam Publishing Group