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“The legend of Billie Holiday and the huge, vocal presences of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae have tended to overshadow Anita's reputation. She remains, though, one of the toughest, most dramatic and most fiercely swinging of all jazz singers, with a personality like rough-cut diamond. A great survivor, she kept on past her real sell-by date, but energized by a sheer appetite for life and music.”
Richard Cook and Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
“The thing about Anita O'Day is that she always sings jazz. And what makes her singing always jazz is her improvisation. She takes a musician's liberties with phrasing, harmony, and rhythm, and does it all while singing lyrics that still manage to make sense.”
- Dom Cerulli, Jazz author and critic
“Liquor was very much a part of the scene in those days. [Bandleader and clarinetist] Artie Shaw is credited with having said that Jazz was born in a whiskey barrel, was reared on marijuana and was currently expiring on heroin.”
- Charlie Barnet, saxophonist and bandleader
The “currently expiring” part of Artie Shaw’s chronology is a reference to the scourge of heroin that descended upon Jazz like a plague in the decade or so following the end of the Second World War .
This period is sometimes referred to as the “Bebop Generation,” an era during which alto saxophonist Phil Woods lamented: “A lot of people died for this music.”
Imagine, then, announcing to your parents that you planned to become a “Jazz musician” as I did while coming of age in the music during this era?
The look of shock, disbelief and horror that came over their faces was almost too much to bear especially given how much I loved Jazz.
Imagine, too, what their reaction would have been after reading Anita O’Day’s description of the drug world in her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times [with George Eells]. It’s a good thing she waited until 1981 before she published it, because by then, I was long gone as a player on the Jazz scene.
In her eighty-seven years [1919-2006], Anita’s career had numerous highlights during the 1940s and 1950s, but her self-abusive personal life began to take its toll in the 1960s and she began to fade out of public view.
Ever the fighter, she cleaned up her act and by the mid-1970s she made some sparkling, in-performance recordings set in Japan. “They’ve always loved her in Japan, where Anita’s mix of tough and tender is appealing exotic. They were also fascinated by the detail of her battle with narcotics. Cleaned up and fit, by this stage she is getting a kick out of the music again.”
Richard Cook and Brian Morton preceded these comments with the following review of her two volume Masters of Jazz set [#122 and #157] and her Columbia Legacy CD Let Me Off Uptown [CK 65265]; [Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.]:
“Anita O'Day lived the jazz life. She tells about it in High Times, Hard Times (1983). Asa young woman she worked as a singing waitress and in punishing dance-marathons. And she shot horse [heroin] until her heart began to give out in the 1960s and she was forced to battle her demons cold.
As is immediately obvious from her combative, sharply punctuated scatting and her line in stage patter, O'Day was a fighter. As a 'chirper' with the Gene Krupa band in 1941, she refused to turn out in ball-gown and gloves, and appeared instead in band jacket and short skirt, an unheard-of practice that underlined her instinctive feminism. With Stan Kenton, she gave a humane edge to a sometimes pretentiously modernist repertoire. O'Day's demanding style had few successful imitators, but she is the most immediate source for June Christy and Chris Connor, who followed her into the Kenton band.
These early cuts with the Kenton and Krupa bands are definitive of her desire (one more commonly and erroneously associated with Billie Holiday) to be one of the guys, not so much socially and chemically, as musically. She sings like a horn player, not only when scatting, but also when delivering a song-line straight. Her phrasing has a brassy snap and polish and, even through the acoustic fog that surrounds most of these transfers, her enunciation is exact and focused. The bands were among the most exciting of their day, or ever. Kenton's outfit called for more sheer strength, but the unvarnished vivacity and raw charm of the Krupa tracks are what recommends this material. 'Let Me Off Uptown' is the classic, of course, destined to become shopworn and hackneyed in later years, but right off the mint here. 'Bolero At The Savoy' is a band original, presumably worked up during rehearsals. The Columbia set recaptures the sound with great fidelity and compresses the very best of the material from Anita's two stints with Krupa, though oddly this reissue breaks the chronology to no real purpose, starting with false logic on 'Opus One' from 1945.
The Masters of Jazz sets are pretty complete, not to say exhaustive, and if anyone wants a fuller documentation of Anita's early work in those two packed years before America entered the war, then these are the sets to go for, though we have found the sound rather flat and muffled. Containing more than two hours of music, they should be enough for the most devoted enthusiast.”
In writing the insert notes for Pick Yourself Up With Anita O’Day [Verve 314 517 329-2, Nat Hentoff elaborates on the importance of Anita’s early hits and the role that Norman Granz of Norgran and Verve Records played in her career:
“Despite not possessing the range of Sarah Vaughan, the scatting ability of Ella Fitzgerald, or the emotional intensity of Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day deserves to be considered with these sublime singers in any discussion of female jazz vocalists. What recommends her? Among other qualities, an easily identifiable sound, a distinctly personal approach to lyrics and rhythms, a natural effervescence that never crosses into the realm of the merely cute, a genuine ability to improvise, and, especially when interpreting a ballad, a sincerity without mawkishness.
O'Day began her recording career more than a half century ago, in early 1941, with Gene Krupa's band for the OKeh label. That year she sang a duet with trumpeter Roy Eldridge that remains the most popular of her numerous recordings, "Let Me Off Uptown". On it, the singers and the band capture an engaging aspect of Harlem street life.
Appealing and enduring though the performance is, it suggests an innocence at odds with the international political situation of the time. When the United States entered World War II (O'Day turned twenty-two eleven days after the attack on Pearl Harbor), life quickly became difficult for Americans. People needed diversions, however, which Krupa and numerous other musicians, including O'Day, helped provide. (Occasionally the hostilities inspired material that entertainers used to bolster listeners. O'Day recorded one such tune with Krupa in 1942, "Fightin' Doug MacArthur". These topical creations are now curiosities, relics from a long-ago era.)
Although "Let Me Off Uptown" was O'Day's first and biggest hit, O'Day recorded other songs which appealed to a large audience, most notably, "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" with Stan Kenton in 1944. But these successes were essentially a prelude to her most mature work, which she produced while under contract for a decade to Norgran and its successor, Verve, beginning in 1952. This music will ultimately form the basis of her reputation. On most of it she projects, accurately, the impression of a master singer totally in control of her not insubstantial material. Further, she performs with sympathetic arrangers (such as Russ Garcia, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, Billy May, Gary McFarland, and Marty Paich) and major musicians (among them Hank Jones, Barney Kessel, Oscar Peterson, Frank Rosolino, Zoot Sims, and the incomparable Ben Webster).”
“The most familiar image of O'Day is at the Newport Festival in 1958, a set preserved in the movie, Jazz on a Summer's Day. In a spectacular Mack dress and a hat that must have accounted for half the egrets in Louisiana, she resembles one of those subtly ball-breaking heroines in a Truman Capote story. The voice even Ihen is unreliably pitched, but there's no mistaking the inventiveness of Tea For Two' and 'Sweet Georgia Brown'. The woman who sang 'The Boy From Ipanema' with a sarcastic elision of the 'aahhs' was every bit as capable as Betty Carter of turning Tin Pan Alley tat [rubbish, junk] into a feminist statement.”
The 1956 Verve sessions with Bregman's orchestra amount to a survivor's testament, a hard-assed, driving gesture of defiance that is still completely musical. The version of 'Sweet Georgia Brown', which she was to include in the Newport programme, is buoyant and light footed like all the Bregman arrangements, ….” Richard Cook and Brian Morton [Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.].
The following video montage features Anita’s version of Sweet Georgia Brown from the 1956 Verve sessions arranged by Buddy Bregman. See what you think of her treatment of this Jazz standard whose “... harmonies … move leisurely from dominant chord to dominant chord, … [which] makes them ideal for supporting blues and funk licks of every denomination; and the final resolution offers a pleasant surprise since the tonic chord doesn’t appear in the first 12 bars of the song, an opening that proves in retrospect to be a masterful exercise in misdirection.” [Ted Gioia, The Jazz Standards: A guide to the Repertoire].