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Extended Analysis

Anita O'Day: Indestructible!

By Published: February 22, 2006
Anita O'Day
Indestructible!
Kayo Stereophonic
2006

Writer's Note: This is not the original article I submitted for publication. That article lacked a critical compass. I have taken advantage of the Internet and recast my opinions more thoughtfully. I have revised the article to better reflect my active rather than reactive feelings toward Indestructible!. After all, Anita O'Day is a National Treasure.

Anita O'Day was born October 18, 1919 as the former Anita Belle Colton in Chicago, Illinois. She began singing in her teens and by the late 1930s, she began singing in the Off-Beat Lounge, a popular hangout for musicians such as Gene Krupa, who in 1941 offered O'Day the vocalist chair in his band. Within weeks, Krupa hired trumpeter Roy Eldridge. O'Day and Eldridge developed brilliant chemistry on stage and their duet "Let Me Off Uptown" became a huge hit, blasting off the Krupa band. She changed her stage name O'Day (after being arrested for truancy), because it was Pig Latin for dough (slang for money).

Leaving Krupa, O'Day joined Woody Herman's band, where she stayed a year before returning to Krupa. Later, O'Day was hired by Stan Kenton with whom she recorded the hit "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine."

In the late 1940s, O'Day transformed herself into a solo act performing with small ensembles. She met drummer John Poole, with whom she performed for the next thirty years. Her Long Player, This is Anita, which she recorded for the newly established Verve Records (it was the label's first LP), provided her more exposure and greater popularity, and she went on to produce a score albums for Verve through the 1960s.

About this time, the singer began festival appearances with such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, and Thelonious Monk. She appeared in the documentary filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 called Jazz on a Summer's Day, which painted her with magic.

Throughout Verve's golden 1960s, O'Day continued to tour and record after acquiring a heroin habit. In 1969, she nearly died from an overdose. After dropping from the musical radar for several years to address her chemical dependencies, O'Day made a comeback at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival and resumed making live and studio albums, many recorded off shore and released on her own Emily Records.

Anita O'Day is much lauded for her keen sense of rhythm and dynamics, and her early big band appearances that shattered the traditional image of a demure chanteuse by saturating her performance with swing just as potent the rest of the band.

Regarding O'Day's famous 1958 Newport appearance, I wrote in my review of Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002 & 2003:

"The most notable article for our readership are those that are Jazz or allied-genre musics. Matthew C. Duersten's lengthy article flaunting Anita O'Day (The Moon Looks Down and Laughs) is the finest writing in the 2002 edition. It provides keen insight into this controversial and important jazz artist's life since the publication of her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times (Limelight, 1989). Needless to say, like Keith Richards, Miss O'Day has been living on gravy time for the past 20 years.

Also, needless to say, O'Day is the greatest living female jazz vocalist.

Duersten's sizzling prose captured the triumph of O'Day's appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival as captured in perhaps the first jazz documentary, Jazz on a Summer's Day:

As [John] Poole's tom-toms ooze steadily out of the heat, O'Day at first appears to be engaging in a mating dance with the mike stand. (Dick Cavett once observed did any singer so completely hold sway over microphones as she?) Her first words float in from nowhere: Noo-oo-oo-ooooo gal-maaaidd-has-got-a-shaaade-on- Sweet Geoooorgia Brown?? She shifts, tilting her head with one glove raised: Theeeyyy all- sigh-and-wah-nah-dieeee / For Sweeeeet Gee-oh-gia Brown / I'll tell ya why'I don't liiieeee?? Pause, smirk. Much!? She bobs her head like a pigeon, bouncing on the balls of her feet: TWO. LEFT. FEET. / Oh! SO neat!? The sinewy intro lasted a full two minutes, O'Day reducing her voice to barely a peep and the music threatening to peter out completely. Then, like saying achtung, she is off: IT's / been-SAID-she / KNOCKS / them-dead / WHEN SHE la-ah-ands / on tooo-ooown?? Leaning her head almost out of the frame, she starts the note away from the mike, bringing it gradually back, slicing the air in half: eeeeEEEEEET Geeeor-GAH Bro-owwn?? She curls her lips, pronouncing the last word Braun and dropping her voice low, and her famous teeth, which seem to jut out of her mouth at a 120-degree angle, make her look like she is engaged in some devilish private joke.


That fabulous vision, captured for eternity, is what I see and hear when I think of the great Anita O'Day.

Today, O'Day is the age of my mother if she were living, 86. She is a visage from another time, another universe, pre-Great Depression, pre-World War II, living through the postwar '50s, the tumultuous 1960s, the neon '70s, the go-go '80s, and the me-me-me '90s and now the new millennia. This is a visage that commands respect, admiration, even adoration. O'Day is to be honored for her longevity and staying power in the face of serious odds not in her favor.

On O'Day's website, Anita O'Day, is a four-minute clip from the soon to be released documentary, Indestructible!: The Life and Times of Anita O'Day, produced by close O'Day collaborators Robbie Cavolina, Melissa Davis, and Ian McCrudden. Chet Baker Biographer James Gavin, who was present for the Indestructible! recording sessions noted:

...the whole conception was there, all of the qualities we associate with Anita. It is Anita through and through. It is just the way she would have sung it 40 years ago, except for the fact that she sounds very old...but it's touching...it's touching.

I cannot improve on that description.

So many words have been spilled regarding Billie Holiday and Chet Baker's late recordings as being poignant and shockingly honest (if such a word could be used for Baker) when it was obvious that both artists were used up. Had Holiday or Baker lived so long, they would have also produced an Indestructible! vastly inferior to O'Day's. Instead, Holiday and Baker died (relatively young), beauty ruined in the most romantic of senses. This, of course, is not the case with O'Day. Anita O'Day has outlived her voice's capacity to express her brilliant, even genius talents.

Indestructible! is not easy to listen to. There exists a deep pathos to the recording of greatness in twilight. We certainly should embrace O'Day precisely because she is here where all of her peers are gone.

So here is my suggestion. Indestructible! is not for the faint of heart or the truely particular. For completist, it is a necessary consideration. For the uninitiated, I suggest considering the DVD Jazz on a Summer's Day/A Summer's Day With Bert Stern, (New Yorker Video, 1959). This is how any Anita O'Day fans should remember her. Also, any of O'Day's Verve recordings from the 1960s are worth a listen. This is the zenith of a talent to be honored in her prime. If these first two suggestions interest the listener, the said listener might also consider O'Day's autobiography, High Times Hard Times (Limelight Editions, 2004). This autobiography lives in the same orbit as that of Art Pepper, Straight Life.

I will keep Indestructible! in my permanent collection, because of its historical significance, and as a reminder of what greatness is and then was and how it will be for all of us.


Tracks: Blue Skies; This Can't Be Love; Is You Is; All of Me; A Slip of the Lip; Pennies From Heaven; Gimme a Pigfoot; Them There Eyes; Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; My Little Suede Shoes (instrumental); The Nearness of You.

Personnel: Tracks 1, 2, 4, 6, 8-11: Joe Wilder, trumpet; Tommy Morimoto, tenor sax; Lafayette Harris, Jr., piano; Chip Jackson, bass; Eddie Locke, drums. Tracks 3, 5, 7: Roswell Rudd, trombone; Steve Fishwick, trumpet; John Colianni, piano; Sean Smith, bass; Matt Fishwick, drums.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Ann Louise Fox Bailey (1919 - 2001).



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