Anita O'Day, the unblushing archetype of the jazz-singing bad girl,died of a heroin overdose in 1966, or so reported at least onenewspaper after she was found unconscious on the floor of arestroom in a Los Angeles office building, a hypodermic needledangling from one of her arms. The first doctor to see her detectedno heartbeat and mistook her for dead--much as several times beforeand after that day, jazz listeners and critics gave up on O'Day andthought her finished, only to watch her revive, unaccountably. InApril of this year, at the age of eightysix, she released a newalbum, Indestructible!, which is also the title of a documentaryfilm about O'Day that has been in the works for a few years. Shedefied her assessors one last time on Thanksgiving Day, when shefinally did die, for real, of complications from pneumonia.
Most of the encomia published about O'Day immediately after herdeath portrayed her as she had been depicted since the first of herfour drug busts, nearly sixty years earlier--as a jazz cliche, ahedonistic misfit who endured self-inflicted torture for her art.The New York Times, in the headline of its obituary, referred toO'Day as the "Hard-Living Star of the Big Band Era and Beyond," andthe Los Angeles Times, likewise, called her the "Renowned SingerBilled as the `Jezebel of Jazz.'" Online, the chat among devotees ofjazz and cabaret singing tended toward a contrary extreme, strivingto extricate O'Day's legacy as an artist from her popular image onthe ground that her work should stand on its own strengths,untainted by her personal weaknesses and adventures.
O'Day took both points of view about herself in various stages ofher long life. She came up with that billing, the "Jezebel ofJazz," herself. (O'Day started singing professionally in her nativeChicago in 1939, a few months after the release of the Bette Davismovie Jezebel, and in her pert manner and clipped speech O'Dayalways had a hint of Davis.) She was candid about her drug use(outside the courtroom) and blunt about her thirst for kicks."Three- quarters of the time, I was higher than a kite," she notedin her memoir, co- written with George Eells and titled High TimesHard Times. "All my life I've wanted to be where the action is. Myambition? Be street smart. Brazen it out. Never look back. [I]gloried in shocking people."
But when her book was published and the resulting publicity centeredon her drug use, her abuse of alcohol, and her sexual exploits,O'Day recoiled. In 1981 she walked off the set of the Today showwhen she was asked how long she had done heroin, and she resentedthe new faces in her audience--the "different breed of cat" sheperceived as "there to stare at the woman who'd done all the thingsthey never dared to do." O'Day suffered what she called amini-breakdown and retreated to the three-room mobile home she keptin a trailer park on the outskirts of Palm Springs.
A few years later, I interviewed her briefly in her dressing roombefore she performed at Rainbow and Stars, the nightclub that usedto be atop Rockefeller Center, and she was drunk and eager to sayso. "I'm smashed," she said, by way of an introduction. "It helpsme swing." With that comment--and, more eloquently, with theenchanting, mercurial music she made later that evening-- O'Dayshowed the error in defining her by either her substance abuse orher singing alone. The two were not inextricable; they were one.
Although O'Day performed and recorded proficiently when she wasstraight--in her early days, as a singer with the Gene Krupa bigband, as well as in her final decades, after she kicked hersixteen-year heroin habit--O'Day did her greatest, most enduring,and most influential work while she was stoned out of her mind.More to the point, the music was not merely made possible by drugs;it was music of the drug experience, an expression of what it meantfor its singer to be high. It remains potent, music of euphoria andabandon, and the fact that it derives its potency not simply fromhuman gifts but from the submission of those gifts to narcotics isthe treachery, the exhilarating and harrowing glory, of AnitaO'Day's music.
The high points of her career, in every sense, were the albums thatO'Day recorded between 1954 and 1961 for Verve Records, many ofthem made under the direct supervision of the label's founder,Norman Granz. In the early 1990s, Granz remembered his sessionswith O'Day as extraordinarily efficient, almost effortless--thatis, from the time she entered the studio to the time she left, ashort while later. "All the work [had to be] done in advance," Granzrecalled. "I'm talking about the set-ups, the run-throughs,everything but her part," because O'Day refused to rehearse orrecord more than one take, as a rule. "It had to be spontaneous forher," Granz said, "regardless of what that involved for the rest ofus."
Indeed, O'Day spoke from time to time of her fondness for wingingrecording sessions and live performances. She preferred to workwith musicians who were new to her, doing arrangements she had notheard before. The pleasure that O'Day sought from music was purelyexperiential--kinetic, fleeting, druggy. She thought of music assomething she would rather not think about, but simply feel and do.When singing with unfamiliar musicians, she once explained to aninterviewer, "the whole timing is a little off balance, and it keepsyou on your toes. When you get your own group going, it gets toorelaxed. The way I do it, each tune is a horse race."
Most of O'Day's output for Verve can be downloaded through iTunes orthe website of PolyGram/Universal, and the spontaneity of hersinging for the label is still thrilling to hear some fifty yearsafter the recording sessions. She blurts out phrases, dispenseswith the composers' melodies, drops lines at whim, breaks wordsinto odd-shaped bits, and slips off the charts altogether intoriffs of scattershot notes and guttural quasi-notes. Her strengthwas not a commitment to the material, but a devotion to the moment.This approach gave her music a disarming off-handedness--genuinecasualness, rather than the affected nonchalance of, say, MelTorme. Among the best evidence: "Honeysuckle Rose," from the 1955album This Is Anita, the watershed of O'Day's tenure at Verve;"Don't Be That Way," from its fine 1956 follow-up, Pick Yourself UpWith Anita O'Day; and "Tea for Two," recorded live with a jazzcombo in 1958 for Anita O'Day at Mister Kelly's.
O'Day's casualness could also drift into indifference, undermine thesong, clash with its arrangement, or throw off the musicians in theband. Ill-suited to the meticulously elliptical melodies of JeromeKern and the unorthodox, rangy tunes of Duke Ellington, she fakedher way through demanding numbers such as "I'm Old Fashioned" and"Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me." As she explained in interviews,melodic precision never interested her, because it calls fordiscipline and a regard for convention. "It gets a little dumbsinging melody every night," O'Day said. Nor was she particularlyconcerned with lyrical content. On the whole, O'Day employed wordsfor their sounds rather than their meaning, as if they were scatsyllables that also happened to be in the dictionary. She seemeddeaf to lyrical subtext--and often to the text itself, sometimesignoring even the basic sense of a song. If she wanted to swing it,she simply did not care if "Ten Cents a Dance" was supposed to be amelancholy lament.
O'Day used her voice like a jazz instrument, and it sounded likeone. She had a dry, chilly tone, a sister to the sound of MilesDavis's trumpet. Like Davis, she articulated in short bursts withlittle or no vibrato. (When O'Day was a child, a surgeonaccidentally sliced off part of her uvula during a tonsillectomy,limiting her ability to employ vibrato, even if she wanted to. Onseveral occasions when I saw her perform, she appeared to rattle herhead slightly to produce a vibrato-like effect.) Chris Connor andJune Christy, both of whom followed O'Day in and out of the StanKenton Orchestra, emulated O'Day, as have countless lessers whohave wanted to imitate that cool-jazz vibe. O'Day, for all the goodwork she left the world, is also to blame for Sade.
Reared as a singer in Gene Krupa's hard-driving dance band, O'Dayhad impeccable time. Whatever the tempo, she swung. Her scatsinging had dazzling rhythmic vigor and complexity. (WillFriedwald, the author of the fine book Jazz Singing, has describedO'Day's bravura scatting as "rhythmic exhibitionism. ") Her firsthusband was a drummer, as was her longtime best friend John Poole,who served as the only constant in her bands for decades and who, atO'Day's insistence, first turned her on to heroin. "Rhythm is mything," O'Day said matter-of-factly in my only conversation withher. Her breath control was inadequate to sustain notes, sheexplained, so she compensated by accentuating time. Besides, shesaid, inimitably, "sustained notes are boring."
Boredom was the one thing that was intolerable to O'Day. Her musicwas the manifesto of her devotion to kicks at all cost. Ecstatic,indulgent, risky, excessive, and volatile, it was drug music,improvised in a state of simulated euphoria and imagined immunity.To make such music was an act of fearlessness, though not ofbravery. O'Day, pickled by dope, knew no fear; but it was EllaFitzgerald, lucid as she willed impossible scat lines into being,who was brave.
O'Day has long been an artist more difficult to accept than she isto appreciate, because of the primacy of dope in her aesthetic. Welike our junkies tragic, preferably taken before their time, likeO'Day's long-gone contemporaries Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday(or, in rock and roll, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain); and in theirmusic we want to find the evidence of mad genius run wild (Parker)or gothic decay (Holiday). We know that heroin is an evilsoul-killing venom, and that is pretty much all we want to knowabout it. We want to hear only about heroin's inevitable betrayal,not about its seduction. We most certainly do not want to thinkthat music as spirited and delightful as Anita O'Day's work in herprime could be good because of its debt to heroin.
`I've sometimes thought there's a Good Anita and a Bad Anitafighting for dominance," O'Day ruminated in her memoir, adding thatthe latter, "who wants to shock, mock and put everything down," was"definitely in control" during the early 1950s. She had plenty ofpractice. O'Day first earned her reputation as a bad girl while shewas an actual girl, quitting high school and leaving home at agefourteen to make her living as a dance partner for hire in theDepression- era dance-a-thon events (as in They Shoot Horses, Don'tThey?, speaking of heroin). Recalling the work years later, O'Daydescribed it as "the endurance business." As such, it clearlytrained her well. She changed her surname from Colton toO'Day--"pig Latin [for] dough, which is what I hoped to make"--andstarted singing at the dance-a-thons for extra income. By the timeshe was nineteen, she was singing in Chicago's Off-Beat Club, whereGene Krupa heard her and signed her in 1941.
She was attractive--"Anita O'Day could stand and let the customersbe happy just looking, but for good measure she swings the hottestsongs," wrote a critic for the Chicago Tribune before O'Day joinedKrupa--but declined to serve as a "trinket to decorate thebandstand," insisting on wearing a band jacket "just like the guys"in the orchestra. It was a radical step at the time, and one thatprompted early rumors that O'Day was a lesbian. "She was a wildchick, all right," Krupa later said, "but how she can sing!"
Her best-known recording for Krupa was "Let Me Off Uptown," a duetwith Roy Eldridge, the brilliant trumpeter and occasional singer.The record was scandalous in its day for the saucy interplaybetween Eldridge and O'Day, a black man and a white woman, not tomention the fact that O'Day asked, in the lyrics, to be dropped offalone in the section of town where "it's rhythm that you feel" and"it's pleasure you're about." Rhythm and pleasure, race and sex:all O'Day needed was drugs to cement her name as a hepcat girl gonewild, and she took care of that with her first bust, for possessionof marijuana, in 1947.
"I tried everything--I was curious. I went my own way," O'Day toldme, not long before she abruptly snapped that the interview wasover because she was bored. She had nothing to say that she hadn'ttold someone else before, and she couldn't stand to repeat herself."This is corny," she said. She chastised me for failing to come upwith questions she had never heard. She finished her drink andsaid, "I think this stuff is keeping me alive."