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Jazz vocalist Anita O'Day: on the scene and growing

By Amy Duncan / February 18, 1981


When one thinks of female jazz singers, the first who usually come to mind are Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. But there's another that's been around just as long, and in her own way, has made a lasting contribution to the jazz vocal genre. Anita O'Day is that name -- a well- respected one in the jazz world, a song stylist of unusual talents, who has been on the music scene since the days of the big bands.

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O'Day rose to fame with the Stan Kenton and Gene Krupa bands in the 1940s, and was followed by a number of imitators, including June Christy and Chris Connor. But Anita is still very much around, perhaps more than ever, as evidenced in her recent television appearances and a newly completed biography which should hit the bookstores this spring: "High Times, Hard Times," by George Eells, who has written popular biographies of Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, and Cole Porter, among others. In addition, Miss O'Day owns her own record company, Emily Records, through which she has produced several albums in the past few years.

I spoke with Miss O'Day here recently, and our conversation shed some light on her musicianship and character. The night before our talk I had heard her sing at Lulu White's jazz club, an event I have enjoyed annually. It's a unique experience watching her perform, and gratifying to notice the audiences appreciating her talent more every year. She's usually backed up by a trio consisting of pianist Norman Simmons, who accompanied Carmen McRae for years; drummer John Poole, a longtime associate and manager; and various bass players -- this time it was Steve Novosel, a fine young player from Washington, D.C.

O'Day's command of the situation is evident as she takes to the stage, yet she's definitely not the classic image of the singer as the "star," with the band merely providing background. Should there be any inclination to see her as such, she quickly dispels that notion with a sweep of the hand that includes each member of the band -- a gesture that says, in the O'Day version of her theme song "Wave," "just catch the wave, don't be afraid of loving me -- and the three."m

And catch the wave we do indeed, as she spins out old standards and jazz tunes in a different way each time -- "You'll never hear that version again," she quips, after turning an up-tempo "S'Wonderful" inside out and segueing into a downbeat, bluesy "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

Anita spoke about her beginnings and an early interest in music:

"My mother played the piano, my father sang, and as I got older the three of us used to do an act at home. When I was about 12 or 13 I ran away from home and joined the Walkathon. I knew one song and I sang in front of thousands of people and I didn't know a C from a G. Later on I went to the Fine Arts School in Chicago and studied harmony, theory, and drums."

How did O'Day develop her unique style?

"It develops from what you are. It develops from how much time and effort you put into it. I gave it all my time. Most singers don't sing the chromatics. When you haven't got that much voice you have to use all the cracks and the crevices and the black and the white keys. That's all the range I've got. I'm no Lily Pons or Sarah Vaughan -- that's what makes my style. If it's unique, well . . . ." She shrugged.

Unlike most other jazz singers, O'Day does not improvise merely using "scat," or nonsense, syllables. Although she does make use of that method, she also uses the lyrics of the songs themselves as vehicles for jazz lines. She'll take one syllable and make it into four, always moving as a horn player would, weaving melodic lines with the words themselves. And she holds the microphone not always directly in front of her mouth, but sometimes to the side or at arm's length.