Friday, February 13, 2015

Anita O'Day

"When you haven't got that much voice, you have to use all the cracks and crevices and the black and the white keys." - Anita O'Day

I was thirteen or fourteen when I first heard jazz.  Given that I grew up in Cleveland, it was not difficult to discover.  There were a number of jazz clubs that attracted the leading performers in that medium and, while I was too young to attend any of their performances [I didn't start sneaking illegally into clubs until I was seventeen], their art was unavoidable as the artists would appear on local news shows, at shopping center openings, and in surprise, free concerts in the parks or public square.

Each city or region of the United States has contributed to the sound of jazz.  Cleveland style is dominated by the electric organ, specifically the Hammond B3.  Since most of the native jazz musicians learned to play in church rather than in school or from private instructors, and since the Hammond is the instrument of choice in Pentecostal choirs, it was a natural relationship.

New York style often has a more nervous and frenetic beat, the sounds of the subway and urban traffic.  Shortly after the end of World War II, New York "bebop" became dominant with its quick licks and lyrical improvisation offered by musicians like Charlie Parker, Lips Page, Lester Young, and Miles Davis.

The oldest form of jazz, that of New Orleans, derives its particular sound from Creole folk rhythms and the pitchiness that comes from well-used instruments purchased from pawn shops, captured in the brassiness of horns and the jangle of the piano.  No surprise since Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton are two of its representative artists.

Many of the musicians from the South along with those from New York, seeking newer venues, came to Chicago and blended their styles into the unmistakable Chicago sound, a rhythm emphasized by the upright bass and guitar. 

As with any entertainers, musicians, especially once they were established, tended to roam from city to city, traveling along their performance routes or re-locating to the cities of their record companies.  This continued the blending of styles and sounds so that one group would inform another and create yet more avenues of aural exploration.  The eventual "swirl" of styles would lead to Los Angeles, of course, and become known as West Coast Jazz, best known by artists such as Mel Torme and Henry Mancini.

One of the artists to participate in this mass, roaming adventure in sound was Anita O'Day [as she would inform people, her stage name is from the pig latin for "dough"].  While her roots were in the bebop blend of Chicago, she is generally remembered as one of the practitioners of West Coast Jazz, a much cooler fusion of existing styles and one that marked, in particular, the decade of the 1950's.

O'Day was born Anita Bell Colton in Chicago in 1919.  It was an impoverished upbringing from which she escaped as soon as she could into the venue most likely to take a poor, young woman and not illegally exploit her.  So, O'Day began her life as an entertainer as a marathon dancer in the infamous events of the 1930's.  In these she would remain on her feet for hours and days, enlivening the experience for the audience by also engaging in odd competitions, harmful games, and extemporaneous song.  It was in the latter event that she began to realize she had a voice and persona that people liked.  The fan favorite was her version of "The Lady in Red".

As marathon dance competitions began to take their physical toll [she was seventeen, after all], O'Day found employment as a singing waitress in some of the tonier clubs of Chicago, a vocation that allowed her close association with politicians, gangsters, characters [frankly, in the Windy City and its smaller Rust Belt cousins, it's a little hard to separate those three categories], and, especially, professional musicians of no small repute.  I'm sure it didn't hurt that she was considered attractive by the standards of her day.

At eighteen she met and married a jazz drummer who got her a gig singing with his band at the famous nightclub, The Off-Beat, which was owned by the editor of Down Beat magazine, still the "bible" of the jazz world.  From this job O'Day met almost all of the most popular jazz musicians of her day.  More importantly, she had a chance to sing with and for them, and to learn through observation how music could be individually interpreted and presented.

When Gene Krupa, the great, frenetic jazz drummer, who had heard her sing at The Off-Beat, discovered that his eponymous band's singer was thinking of departing, he made sure to hire O'Day when the position opened.  At the age of 22, she was now fronting for the most popular band on the charts.  With Krupa, she made the first form of music video, "soundies", which would be shown at movie theaters as part of the entertainment in between the B movies and feature films.

Unfortunately, Krupa and his band also introduced her to something as intoxicating as popularity.  They were notorious, even among other musicians, for their alcohol and drug use and O'Day became a participant in that associated experience.  In 1943, Gene Krupa's band broke up when he was arrested and jailed for marijuana possession.  [An aside: This seems odd, doesn't it, from our perspective?  Since we currently live in a world that is far more judgmental about tobacco use than that of marijuana.]  She was now unemployed and stranded in Los Angeles.

While her marijuana usage would eventually lead to heroin addiction, O'Day continued to perform for other leading jazz bands, now as a solo artist, joining Woody Herman for performances at the Hollywood Palladium and on tour with Stan Kenton's band.  When Krupa was released after two years, O'Day rejoined his band for one year but, by then, she had come to prefer the schedule and musical freedom of a soloist.  At this time, the readers of Down Beat rated her the fourth best jazz singer, just behind Billie Holiday at number three.

With World War II coming to an end, and the veterans returning to a burgeoning economy offering the greatest amount of discretionary income ever known in U.S. history, over the next decade the music industry jumped with new acts, new labels, new venues, and new artists who continued to push the envelop of sound and style.  With dozens of small record labels now filling the market, O'Day found more than enough solo work, along with the "o'day" she needed to support her second husband and her growing dependency on drugs.

One of those small record labels, Verve, was becoming well-known as an upstart company able to work outside of the sometimes tightly controlled association of nightclub owners and music managers. As the company came into existence at the same time that recording technology was enabling instruments other than the clarinet and drums to be heard with more aural precision, and the format changing from ten-inch records to twelve-inchers with greater tonality and fidelity, it was well-suited to allow singers, in particular, to indulge their particular styles.

O'Day's first solo album in 1952, Anita O'Day Sings Jazz, was a critical and popular success.  Her follow-up album, Songs, would be delayed when she was arrested for marijuana and heroin possession and be in and out of courtrooms and jails for a couple of years, but its eventual release was equally well-received. Since musicians tend not to have their reputations damaged by drug use, arrests, and prosecutions [in fact, reputations are often enhanced], both her work and her addiction continued apace until, at the age of 49, she almost died from a heroin addiction.

Recovery and rehabilitation marked her next few years as her recordings and performances ceased. A number of jazz artists, replaced in popularity by the rockers of the 1960's, found opportunities in Europe and the newly-clean O'Day, not to be left out, wound up stealing the show at the 1970 Berlin Jazz Festival.  From that point forward, O'Day could always be found a studio or performance venue.

She would die in 2006.  A year later, the documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of an American Jazz Singer would be presented to acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival.

I initially knew of her from the "soundies" that used to be shown at college film festivals in the 1970's, and from the round of appearance she made on Johnny Carson's and Dick Cavett's shows in the wake of the publication of her memoirs, High Times, Hard Times, in 1981.  In her book and interviews, she spoke candidly of the toll that drug abuse took on her life but also entertainingly of the stories of those who created and refined America's particular music form.

In those days, when I used to host a weekend jazz show on a small radio station in rural Pennsylvania, somewhere in the middle of my midnight to 6 AM shift, I would often receive a phone call from the same listener, perhaps my only listener, who would always request the same song.  Even when I would automatically set up the record around 3 AM, she would still call and ask if I would "play some of that Anita with the sweet voice; play some 'Sweet Georgia Brown'".  I always would, of course, not just because it was the only request I would ever receive, but because O'Day's live performance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is considered the high-water mark in the popularity of American jazz.