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In the latest of a lifetime of improbable resurrections, 79-year-old Anita O’Day flew from her West Hollywood retirement home last month to co-star with the Manhattan Transfer and Kevin Mahogany in a JVC Jazz Festival concert at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall. Having survived a series of ailments (a broken arm, blood poisoning, pneumonia) that required treatment at eight hospitals and nursing homes, and left her wheelchair-bound until seven months ago, the godmother of the cool school of jazz vocalizing demonstrated that she still has the goods. Despite occasional fluffed lyrics and pitch problems, she proved to audiences and reviewers that she’s still jazz’s hardest-swinging songbird.
O’Day’s re-emergence after three years of inactivity coincides with a revival of interest in her recorded work. Mosaic, the mail-order company that produces sumptuously packaged limited-edition boxes devoted to the music of seminal jazz artists, has just released a nine-CD collection of the 198 performances O’Day recorded for Norman Granz’s Clef and Verve labels between 1952 and 1962. Verve has simultaneously reissued Time for Two, a breezy 1962 album teaming the singer with vibist Cal Tjader’s quintet. And Let Me Off Uptown!, a new Columbia/Legacy CD, collates 18 of the sides O’Day cut between 1941 and 1945 during her two stints as vocalist with Gene Krupa’s band.
The street-smart recklessness that makes O’Day’s singing so enthralling exacted a heavy toll on her personal life. Her 1981 autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, is a harrowing chronicle of poverty, tortured relationships, abortions, and a 13-year heroin addiction that climaxed in 1966 with a near-fatal overdose. She discovered her artistic calling at 15 while competing in a grueling Depression-era dance marathon in Springfield, Mo. Jesus, she claims, appeared to her in a vision and inquired, “What are you going to do in this world, Anita?” She replied, “If I had my wish, there is only one thing I’d like to do: sing.” The deity, whom she describes as a white-clad proto-hipster with shoulder-length hair and a beard, approved her choice. “‘You’ve got it. That will be it,’ He said, or words to that effect.”
After serving her apprenticeship in jazz clubs in her native Chicago, O’Day, at 21, joined Krupa’s orchestra and, co-featured with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, created a sensation with the 1941 hit single “Let Me Off Uptown.” An original from the downbeat, she rewrote the rulebook for female band vocalists. Until she hit the scene, “girl singers,” as they were then condescendingly dubbed, conformed to prevailing feminine stereotypes—ingenues, glamour pusses, and vamps—gracing the bandstand in evening gowns, ankles decorously crossed, and rising occasionally to warble a chorus of straight melody. O’Day, then involved in an unconsummated marriage to drummer Don Carter, insisted that she be taken as seriously as the other musicians in the band. Sartorially underscoring this point, she performed in a band jacket, shirt, and tie, which gave rise to unfounded rumors of lesbianism.
Despite its keen edge and vivacious sparkle, O’Day’s grainy voice lacks richness and power. A critic once advised her to clear her throat before singing; another characterized her sound as “strangulated.” As she candidly observes in her memoir, “I knew I didn’t have any chops, but I also knew I had a lot of heart.” Although there have been glorious voices in jazz—Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to name but two—Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Blossom Dearie, Bob Dorough, and a host of others have shown that effective jazz singing has less to do with tonal beauty and range than with inventiveness, musicianship, and originality.
O’Day’s strength stems from her harmonic and rhythmic sophistication. She relates that, when she was 7, a careless doctor sliced off her uvula while performing a tonsillectomy. As a consequence, she has difficulty sustaining long tones, for which she compensates by breaking extended tones into strings of eighth and sixteenth notes. (Typically, she sings “love” as “la-ah-ah-ah-ah-ve” and, instead of simply repeating the melody note, employs these syllables to navigate the chord structure underpinning the melody.) Forced to break long lines into discrete units, O’Day, who was also a competent drummer, evolved a supple, dynamic sense of time, which served her well when bebop supplanted swing. No singer in jazz history has played with the beat so daringly or swung so consistently—even on ballads.
No doubt this is one of the reasons why drummer Krupa chose her for his band. Just as she downplayed her femininity, O’Day eschewed conventional moon-June-croon love songs, focusing instead on rhythm and novelty tunes. Of Let Me Off Uptown!’s 18 tracks, only two, “Green Eyes” and “Tea for Two,” deal with matters of the heart. The rest celebrate places (“Georgia on My Mind,” “Just a Little Bit South of North Carolina,” “Massachusetts”) and jivey music and dance vogues (“Opus One,” “Thanks for the Boogie Ride,” “Bolero at the Savoy”). On the innovative “That’s What You Think,” O’Day’s voice functions as a wordless instrument, interweaving with the band until the enigmatic coda, when she finally sings the composition’s title. Abdicating the role of lovestruck or lovesick thrush liberated O’Day to concentrate on time, harmony, and other purely musical concerns. She wasn’t selling romance or sex; she was one of the guys, demanding, and receiving, the same respect that they commanded.
Leaving Krupa, O’Day began an 11-month 1944 stint with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, an uneasy alliance that produced the million-selling single “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine.” Following a brief reunion with Krupa, she attempted to establish herself as a solo attraction. But club dates proved hard to obtain, and she managed to record only sporadically, for low-profile labels. Much of her energy was devoted to dealing with an up-and-down second marriage to womanizing pro golfer Carl Hoff and a 1953 conviction and prison term for heroin possession. O’Day insisted that she was innocent, framed by overzealous cops, but she subsequently became a user, concluding that since she had the name, she might as well play the game.
Thanks to concert and recording impresario Granz, O’Day’s fortunes reversed in 1952 when he signed her to Clef. A series of singles and two 10-inch LPs revitalized her career, capped by the 1956 release of her first 12-inch LP, Anita, on Granz’s newly formed Verve Records. Showcased in a trio of sympathetic settings—an octet featuring four trombones, a 15-piece brass ensemble, and a small string orchestra—the singer had an opportunity to display her hard-won expertise and, on the string-backed ballads “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “Time After Time,” reveal a hitherto unsuspected vulnerability.
Anita’s critical and commercial success inspired Granz to embark on a series of 14 more O’Day albums: a reunion with Krupa and Eldridge; a “live” session taped at Chicago’s Mr. Kelly’s; collaborations with small ensembles headed by Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Giuffre, the Three Sounds, and Tjader; studio big-band recordings arranged by Buddy Bregman, Billy May, Russ Garcia, Johnny Mandel, Marty Paich, Bill Holman, and Gary McFarland. All of these projects, plus a few singles and alternate takes, are included in the Mosaic box, and there’s not an inferior performance in the batch.
The Complete Anita O’Day Verve/Clef Sessions comes equipped with a 32-page monograph, featuring a folio of evocative photographs and a long essay by Will Friedwald, one of my least favorite writers on any subject. (He also wrote the Legacy album notes.) Perhaps his ubiquitousness—several weeks ago, I purchased five CDs, all of which contained Friedwald’s annotations—has finally begun to wear me down, but this time out I found his work to be somewhat more controlled and less exasperating than usual. His grating mannerisms are still evident: the juvenile comic book and Borscht Belt argot, the forced analogies, the lame jokes, the subliterate prose style (“most sublimely perfect”), the sloppy errors (Aram Avakian did not direct the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day—Bert Stern did), the amassing of arcane factoids to distract readers from noticing the absence of ideas. (What use are we to make of the information that two songs O’Day performs on Pick Yourself Up also appeared the same year on a Frank Sinatra album?) Admittedly, half-strength Friedwald is easier to ingest than the hard stuff, but I wish record companies would make the effort to engage some other annotators for jazz singer releases.
My favorite O’Day Verve/Clef albums include Pick Yourself Up, the 1956 follow-up to Anita; Waiter, Make Mine Blues, an atypical ballad collection; Incomparable, a big-band session sparked by Holman’s deft arrangement of “Slaughter On 10th Ave.,” which uses O’Day’s voice as a wordless horn; and Time for Two, on which Tjader’s Latin rhythms fuel the singer’s effervescence. I’m less fond of the Billy May-arranged Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart songbooks—brief, rather perfunctory interpretations of overworked standards—and Anita Sings the Most, on which the dignified pianist Oscar Peterson, reportedly bugged by O’Day’s record-studio shenanigans, betrays his antipathy for her in his overly aggressive accompaniments.
Peterson was not the only person who found O’Day hard to take. The arrangers interviewed for the Mosaic box characterize her as, among other things, “one crazy lady” and “a real space case.” A personal experience confirms as much. In the mid-’80s, I went to New York to interview her for Jazz Times. She asked me to meet her at a midtown Japanese restaurant, without informing me that two other journalists, her manager, and her longtime drummer-music director, John Poole, would also be present. O’Day began by ordering a double Bombay gin martini, cutely telling the traditionally garbed waitress, “I want drinkie in stem glassie, no icie.” After I stopped cringing, I mentioned to her that a mutual friend, a gay pianist who had worked with her early in her career, had recently died of rectal cancer. “Live by it, die by it,” was her perky reply. Venturing on, I observed that Poole, seated at the far end of the table, had lost weight and was looking very fit, to which the witty songstress quipped, “He’s dying of cancer, but he doesn’t know it.”
Abandoning small talk, I launched into what I hoped were intelligent questions about O’Day’s music, all of which she mocked and refused to address. After a half-hour of this torture, during which O’Day consumed two more double drinkies, I snapped off my tape recorder and prepared to depart. “Where are you going?” she inquired. I bluntly replied that she needed the interview much more than I did, and I’d had all I could stomach. As I walked out, she looked surprised, even a bit shocked, at being abandoned.
That experience soured me on playing O’Day’s records for many years, but listening to the Mosaic box and the Columbia/Legacy and Verve reissues has restored my admiration, even awe, for the art of this irrepressible, incorrigible survivor. Twice in her autobiography, she quotes, with perverse pride, her longtime booking agent Joe Glaser’s observation, “Anita, you’ve got a million dollars’ worth of talent and no class.” Listening to these superb O’Day performances convinces me that a million dollars’ worth of talent alone will suffice. CP
Mosaic Records are not available in retail stores. The company can be reached by phone, (203) 327-7111, by fax, (203) 323-3526, or at its Web site, www.mosaicrecords.com.