Better-Than-Ever Comeback for Anita O'Day

MUSIC: INTERVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JAZZ vocalist Anita O'Day wraps up a three-tempo rendition of ``I Cried For You'' - one that kept the band on its toes all the way through - and then she delivers a favorite remark: ``You'll never hear that version again!'' The audience breaks up with laughter, and she launches into her mellow finale, ``I'll See You in My Dreams.'' This is O'Day in her 70th year and her 57th in the music business - hip and swinging as ever at a recent extended engagement here at classy Michael's Pub. She was backed by a Gene Krupa reunion band featuring some of New York's top players, including trumpeter Spanky Davis, who did a nifty stand-in for the late Roy ``Little Jazz'' Eldridge on the 1941 hit ``Let Me Off Uptown.''

Just listening to Anita O'Day - one of jazz's foremost improvisers - interpret, dissect, rearrange, and breathe new life into songs like ``Four Brothers,'' ``Lover, Come Back to Me,'' ``'S Wonderful,'' and ``There'll Never Be Another You'' is at once a nostalgic and totally satisfying musical experience.

True to her reputation, at Michael's Pub she gesticulated, turned one-syllable words into five, often sang facing the band, and kept the musicians hopping with her musical surprises.

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Looking better than ever, Anita O'Day today is a minor miracle, having survived 14 years of drug addiction, a long, hard life on the road (with Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, and Woody Herman), and a host of personal and financial problems. In an interview between sets, she seemed downright perky - humorous, talkative, straightforward, and happy with her return to singing after a three-year hiatus.

``I retired when I was 66, and then I put in for my Social Security; so I had an air conditioner put in the trailer,'' said O'Day, referring to the home she shares with her tiny Yorkshire terrier, Emily, in California. ``It helps. It gets 110 at 7 o'clock in the morning where I am.''

But the life of leisure soon got her down. ``I got awfully tired of swimming and riding a bicycle and watching television,'' she says, ``so I started sending out messages....''

Her manager, Alan Eichler, picked up on the messages and called her, suggesting they do something. So they set up a tour to London, Hong Kong, and Rome, and then the gig at Michael's Pub.

Will O'Day retire again? ``No, as long as I feel okay, but I'm not gonna get back into that job to job to job thing until I'm ringa-ding-ding. I just do a few, and then I go home.''

Still, she keeps up a pretty hefty schedule at a time in her life when many people would rather settle into an easier life-style. I asked her what keeps her going.

``I don't know,'' she said. ``... At least I'm not into drugs. I listened to Nancy - just say no! I live alone now; so I'm my own grandma. I learned how to go to the bank. I'm learning how to cook, or I'll starve to death. I'm really busy in my September years, so it's kinda fun, you know?''

And life isn't so hard any more. For Anita O'Day, who grew up never having money and, as a jazz singer, didn't earn much for many, many years, she's thoroughly enjoying herself these days.

``Now I go shopping - I went to Woolworth's today! I never had any money to go shopping. I used to walk in the park and watch the birds. I never knew the difference; so I never missed it. I used to go sit in the park and make up a chorus on a tune I was doing. Now I'm not so hung up - I go shopping; I eat.''

But, she adds, ``The music is all I have. Period. It's all I know. I don't know how to do anything, 'cause that's all I ever did. And I was very happy with that. That was my life ... a one-track.''

And, from all appearances, that's what her life still is, really. Even if she's not so ``hung up'' any more, she still warms up when the subject turns to music.

``You listen to the chords. When I'm gonna learn a song, I learn the chords, and then I learn the song as a poem ... like without music. Now the game that I play is to put the poem of the story into the chords and make a picture. And that's jazz - oh, yeah...! I took ideas from out of nowhere - from imagination, I guess.''

Now O'Day has a new album, ``In a Mellow Tone'' on DRG Records, with pianist Pete Jolly and harpist Corky Hale. She does a featured spot on the ``Torch Song Trilogy'' film soundtrack, singing ``Can't We Be Friends.'' And her autobiography, ``High Times, Hard Times'' is out in paperback.

Anita O'Day seems ready for another turn in the spotlight - perhaps a bit more gentle this time. Indirectly, she thanks the absence of her parents during her growing-up years for her resilience.

``They weren't around. I learned to live a single life, and I'm glad I did, because now I can handle old age.'' Not to mention two sets a night under the lights, with her only chance to rest taken up by inquisitive journalists.

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