Bridging Time: The Kennedy Center Presents Anita O'Day

Franz A. Matzner By

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The night was about paying tribute to a woman whose career contributed so much to music, and who represented through her life story of mixed sufferings, conflicts, failings, and successes, the path that jazz has taken.
As part of the Kennedy Center's ongoing series celebrating 1940's music, dance, film, and culture, the KC Jazz club offered a special concert last week hosted by bass phenomenon Chip Jackson honoring one of jazz's first ladies of song, Anita O'Day.

The concert was held in the Kennedy Center's elegant jazz club, the intimacy of which suited well what became a unique evening of superb music as well as a window onto history. Before Ms. O'Day took the stage, each member of the Chip Jackson Quartet, composed of musicians who have all led long and deservedly elite careers, presented a series of tunes originating from a 1940's singer, composer, or band leader with whom they had played and who had influenced them in some manner. Through these remembrances, the night became an invitation to participate in a mingling of music, story telling, and intriguing discussion.

First to present was Chip Jackson. Perhaps best known for his work with legendary pianist and educator Billy Taylor, Jackson has been on the jazz scene for over 30 years and has developed a mastery of the bass equal parts subtlety, ingenuity, and rhythmic force. For his selection, Jackson chose a medley of Woody Herman tunes culled from his time spent with the group as a young musician. Before opening with a gorgeous bowed solo, however, Jackson established the pattern of the night with several anecdotes both humorous and insightful about Herman, painting a picture of the man's character and musical contributions. Jackson, with the aid of friends and band mates Don Redic, Eddie Locke, and Jerry Dodgion, then launched into a captivating display of musical expression which honored the tempo and sound of the Herman band while incorporating a full range of jazz's stylistic development since that time—particularly Jackson, who astonished the crowd with a soaring solo that braided a litany of diverse techniques into a sonorous display of wit, vigor, and creative force.

Following a heartfelt introduction by Jackson, pianist Don Redic took the mike next to present first a rendition of Peggy Lee's "Fever"?, for which Dodjion switched from alto to flute for a somehow soulful yet playful interpretation, followed by the Margaret Whiting classic "Come Rain or Come Shine"?. Redic framed the music with two amusing stories about his time playing with the two singers, while those among the audience began to get the distinct sense that they had stumbled upon a gathering of old friends enjoying a chance to share memories and remember how they had fallen in love with jazz in the first place.

Drummer Eddie Locke took center stage next, opening with a short anecdote describing his early years playing dance halls and the great feeling of looking out at a whole crowd dancing to the band's groove. Appropriately, Locke then played a rollicking rendition of "Savoy"?, replete with a crackling all-rim drum solo which sounded remarkably like tap dancing feat. After a blistering session of trading with Jackson, who managed to eek almost electric guitar sounding runs from the bass, Locke slammed out a second closing solo that had the crowd shouting with appreciation.

Jerry Dodgion, a flutist, saxophonist, and composer who has played with a veritable whose-who of jazz greats, opened the next series of selections with one of the night's most charming stories, drawing sighs and chuckles from the audience as he related how as quite a young player he had the chance to play with Billie Holiday during a brief tour she made in California. According to Dodgion, he was so enamored of her playing, and so nervous to be on stage with her, that for the first three night's of the gig he demurred at her request that he stay on stage and play, instead leaving the trio to back her alone. That is, until Holiday cornered him on the fourth night and demanded to know why he thought he was better than Lester Young, who was always ready to back her on stage. Chagrined but flattered, Dodgion took the stage and over the next few nights was able to experience the singular joy of playing with Holiday and gain insight into her peculiar character.

In keeping with this story, Dodgion and company then performed a moving interpretation of "Lover Man"?, on which all four players displayed a deep sensitivity and striking ability to find new paths through a tune so often played, without shattering the simple beauty of its original form. At Jackson's insistence, and with the crowd's vocal encouragement, Dodgion performed a second tune, this time a Sinatra piece, "It Was a Very Good Year."? Again, Dodgion impressed with his melodious tone and inventive solos, while Jackson, Locke, and Redic reminded audiences how fluid and responsive a group of master jazzmen can truly be.

Returning to the mike for the next introduction, Jackson reminded the audience of the ultimate agenda of the night's extraordinary music, namely the celebration of the long, brilliant, at times painful, but ultimately triumphant career of the evening's special guest, Anita O'Day.

Frail and thin, Anita O'Day approached the stage, requiring assistance to navigate the short distance to her music stand. Guided by Jackson, who gently supported her as she lifted the mike, Ms. O'Day greeted the audience with a characteristic bit of humor and with some difficulty began her first song, "Blue Skies"?.

Her voice lacking the strength of her youth, O'Day struggled to find the words to the songs, all classics from the 40s, so that the cynic might have been tempted to call the whole scenario sycophantic. But as O'Day sang and told a few jokes, all the while relying on the generosity and support of Jackson and the others for gentle cues, it was clear how integral the stage was to her life. Her wit shone through in her banter, and her love of music matched perfectly the devotion held for her by the crowd, and in this experience the night's sense of history was fulfilled.

It wasn't about the music, or whether O'Day could sing as she used to—the night was about paying tribute to a woman whose career contributed so much to music, and who represented through her life story of mixed sufferings, conflicts, failings, and successes, the path that jazz has taken.

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