Jazz vocalist Anita O'Day: on the scene and growing
Boston — 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.
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.
"That's called 'shading,'" she explained. "I learned that from a kid named Dave Brubeck, who was the house piano player at a place in San Francisco called the Black Hawk. He did it on the piano: It's 'dynamics.'"
Did Anita O'Day spend much time performing music that she didn't enjoy?
"not for long," she laughed. "I'd say, pardon me, I'll see you later, muchm later . . . and it was down the back alley!"
Known for her independence and no-nonsense brusqueness, Anita nevertheless displays a somewhat self-effacing attitude about her talents. I asked if she plays any instruments, just for fun.
"That's what I do it for, 'cause it sure ain't for real! I took drums for real, though. I really wanted to play drums. I saw myself as the female Gene krupa. then I saw how much you have to do against how much I was going to get -- I started too late."
The conversation turned to the various types of bands that back up jazz singers:
"All bands are great, if they're professional. I did one album with a sextet and four others with a trio. A sextet is one type of thinking and a trio another. If they're good musicians, I don't care if there are a hundred and ten of them -- I'll take a chance."
O'Day has her own ideas about what she looks for in a musician, too.
"I like somebody who's really a soloist, but who knows how to accompany me, too."
She spoke highly of pianist Norman Simmons, and I remarked how well he listens to her and picks up on every nuance when she sings.
"It's fun. It's the name of the game: jazz,"m she said, leaning into the word "jazz."
And yet so many musicians don't seem to understand that.
"They don't know the game . . . they don't listen."
O'Day seems to enjoy and appreciate her musicians more than many singers. She often turns her back on the audience when they are taking solos, just to listen
"I do it on purpose. I'm not a singer," she corrected. "I'm a song stylist. Maybe other singers think, well, one hour of me, and the guys play for me. But it's not like that. All my money goes for my musicians and airplanes. I buy musicians."
Ever practical-minded, O'Day doesn't have any lofty answer to a question as to what gives her the most satisfaction as a musician.
"When the job is the proper price for your endeavors. And proper sound equipment where you work." So much for that.
The O'Day name, although highly respected in jazz circles, has never made the big splash of a Sarah Vaughan or even a Carmen McRae. Does this lack of recognition bother her?
"I'm over that."
A woman of exceptional courage, having overcome many personal difficulties over the years, O'Day has certainly not had an easy time as a jazz performer.
"That's why I'm not No. 1. I'm glad to be in the game at all."
She is definitely in the game, and 1980 was a good year for her, with five album releases and many personal appearances. As for her private life time, she says she enjoys "anything that's healthy without spending any money. I ride a bike every day. It changes your mind, your body."
When asked if she had any plans, especially musical, sh stood up, leaned against the wall, and thought a moment.
"I'd like to take a year off and come back with something fresh, you know . . . ."
Onstage, Anita O'Day can be magical. As she says at the end of each show, "Love is the password." Offstage she is guarded, careful. If she's praised, she's inclined to pass it off with a casual
". . . some people play golf, some tennis, i play music."