by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Yesterday Charles and I met to go to the Ken Cinema to see the film Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, a superbly done movie by writers/directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden that mostly, if not totally, avoids the usual pitfalls of the music documentary. While Anita O’Day’s live performances aren’t presented note-complete, at least there’s enough of each song so you can get a sense of the shape of her performances and a clue as to how good she was and why, and the songs are (for the most part) blessedly presented without the talking-heads talking over them.
Anita O’Day’s story, captured in print in her autobiography High Times, Hard Times, is a typical jazz-world tale of rags-to-(almost)-riches-to-rags-again as the little girl with the soaring voice shot to the top with the bands of Gene Krupa (whom she liked) and Stan Kenton (whom she didn’t) and seemed, when she embarked on a solo career, headed for a sky’s-the-limit career — only she got busted for marijuana at a time when she wasn’t actually smoking it and figured “If I have the name, I might as well play the game” (which she narrates in the on-camera interviews in a tone of voice that says, “Yeah, I was stupid, that’s all over, so what?”) and drifted first into pot and then, at the urging of her long-time drummer John Poole, into heroin, which she took for 16 years until a nearly fatal O.D. in 1966 led her to quit. (She adopted an interesting strategy to get off the drug: she went to Hawai’i so she would be in a warm environment that would somewhat counteract the chills typical of withdrawal, and where she could sunbathe and swim to give herself physical sensations that would help stifle the craving to resume use.)
Between the drugs and her reluctance to compromise and record commercial pop material the way Peggy Lee was doing (as were Black jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan), O’Day got ghettoized on the jazz-club circuit and never got the major cabaret, concert, TV and film work that should have been her due. O’Day developed a unique style (the filmmakers don’t pursue the subject of influences in their interviews with her — they were as anxious as she was to present her as sui generis — but it’s clear she learned a lot from Mildred Bailey, as did just about every white woman from her generation who sang jazz and quite a few of the Black ones as well) that stemmed from the fact that as a child, she’d had a tonsillectomy and the surgeon had screwed up and cut off her uvula as well. Without a uvula — the small, fleshy part of the soft palate that hangs down from the back of the tongue — she couldn’t sing with vibrato and had a hard time sustaining long notes, so she turned her deficiency into a trademark by singing in double-time, hitting a lot of short, quick eighth-notes in succession (her version of “Tea for Two,” which turns Vincent Youmans’ long melody into a jazz version of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, is a good example) and using her soft, pure tone to fit in with the horns of a big band and later, when she worked with a rhythm trio, to sing like a horn herself.
If O’Day had a weakness, it was the same as Ella Fitzgerald’s: they both sang utterly gorgeously but didn’t hit the emotional depths that Billie Holiday (with vibrato to spare but lacking the range and inclination to scat) sounded in song after song, including some pretty mediocre pieces of material which Billie made soar by the sheer force of her personality. Both Fitzgerald and O’Day were far more dependent on the quality of their material: give them a great song and they could do it full justice, but they couldn’t always take some of the stupid novelties they got handed during the swing era and transform them the way Billie did.
O’Day ran afoul of some other bandleaders before Gene Krupa hired her — Benny Goodman turned her down after she improvised on her audition song rather than sing the melody “straight” and Raymond Scott fired her after two nights when she forgot the words of a forgettable novelty and scatted her way through it — and Krupa was impressed by her at least in part because she’d studied drums herself under Don Carter, who had also trained Krupa. This isn’t mentioned in the film, but what is mentioned is that Krupa heard her in 1939 and promised her a job as soon as he lost Irene Daye, his current female vocalist and the one on his hit records “Drummin’ Man” and “Drumboogie.” (I’ve long been amused at the procession of similarly named singers that passed through Krupa’s band: Irene Daye, Anita O’Day and Carolyn Gray. If he’d been able to hire Doris Day away from Les Brown, his cycle would have been complete!)
When Daye turned in her notice — she and Krupa bandmate Corky Cornelius got engaged and turned in their notices together, intending to join Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra — O’Day got the call, and immediately stunned Krupa by refusing to wear the fancy, flowing stage gowns that were standard attire for girl singers. (In the film she admits that the real reason she didn’t want to wear them was the difficulty of getting them cleaned on the road.) Instead, when a tailor showed up to make new uniforms for the (male) Krupa band members, O’Day insisted that the tailor make her a jacket that would be identical to what the men wore (though undoubtedly it had to be made differently to accommodate a woman, including the “darts” to make room for her breasts) and a skirt to match, sending the visual message that she wasn’t an attraction apart from the band but was a full-fledged musician, “one of the boys.”
The film is somewhat confusing on the course of her career after that — it mentions her leaving Krupa and joining Stan Kenton but does not say that the only reason she quit Krupa is that the drummer had to give up his band after his 1943 trial in San Francisco (he was not charged with drug possession but with contributing to the delinquency of a minor — the “minor” being teenager John Pateakos, whom he hired as a gofer and used to fetch him marijuana; Krupa was acquitted, but the scandal wiped out his career and forced him to return to sideman work with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey until his reputation recovered) and, after a brief attempt to make it on her own, she was talked into joining Kenton by her (and Kenton’s) manager, Carlos Gastel.
The film also doesn’t mention that the first time she recorded what would be her breakthrough hit with Kenton, “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” she told Kenton not to release it because she thought the drumming was weak. For the next session, she brought along a Black drummer, Jesse Price (who’d preceded Jo Jones with Count Basie’s band in Kansas City), and insisted that he play on the record — and the combination of O’Day’s soaring vocal, the appeal of the song itself (it’s a novelty but a damned cynical one that was appropriately “covered” by Lauren Bacall in the film The Big Sleep) and Price’s driving, swinging drumming made the song a hit. (The Proper four-CD boxed set Young Anita includes both the studio version and an aircheck of “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” made after Price finished his unhappy three-week stint with Kenton — and the rhythmic stiffness of the aircheck with drummer Jim Falzone only underscores how much of a difference Price had made on the hit.) When I read that story for the first time — in a biography of Stan Getz (he was in the Kenton band at the time) — it seemed logical that, since Gene Krupa had been her previous employer, Anita O’Day would be picky about drummers.
In any event, after another brief solo stint (during which the C. P. MacGregor transcription company recorded her with the Nat “King” Cole Trio for five songs — but, amazingly, used Cole only as a pianist, depriving us of the sheer joy of a vocal duet between them!), she rejoined Krupa as soon as he put a new band of his own back together (the one for which Krupa sat in front and took all the flashy drum solos while hiring another drummer, Joe Dale, to sit in back and do the grunt work of keeping time) and had another hit with him in “Boogie Blues” before finally striking out on her own for good. The film takes up her story here with a large placard announcing her new label affiliation with Bib Thiele’s independent Signature label (“Hey, ops! I’m on Signature now!” it said — “ops” meant jukebox operators) and her growing standing once Norman Granz signed her to his labels, originally Clef and Norgran and, after 1955, Verve (the film claims that O’Day, not Ella Fitzgerald, was the first female singer to release an LP on Verve), coupled with her increasing drug problems.
When her drummer John Poole first gave her heroin (he was a lifetime addict who stayed on the stuff but continued to work with her even after she cleaned up, only to get fired after 32 years because he hit her once) she said, “This is better than a martini! This is better than sex!” — yet another attempt by a user (or ex-user) to answer the eternal question those of us who don’t do drugs ask of those who do — and she made a lot of money on the club circuit in the 1950’s and spent it all, mostly (as one former manager ruefully reflects in the movie) in her arms. When the popularity of jazz declined in the U.S. in the 1960’s she made her living elsewhere, recording extensively for a Japanese label and playing mostly there and in Europe (two of the most interesting performance clips here are from a concert she gave in Sweden, singing into an odd tapered mike that looks like an expensive vibrator). The film includes the famous clip of her singing “Sweet Georgia Brown” from Bert Stern’s film Jazz on a Summer’s Day — of which, when I saw that movie, I wrote, “Anita O’Day sings divinely but sports one of the silliest outfits of all time, a black cinch dress with white feather-boa trimmings and a matching floppy sun hat that makes it a bit difficult to see her face under the damned thing!” — and O’Day tells the story of how she got that outfit. When she showed up at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, where that movie was shot, she asked the Festival’s promoter, George Wein, what night she would be singing. “Sunday afternoon,” Wein told her. The day of her performance O’Day went to a Newport dress shop to see what they had that might be suitable, and they sold her a typical Newport society woman’s going-out-on-a-sunny-summer-day outfit — and she wore it, complete with glass slippers that made her stumble as she walked up the stairs to the stage (immortalized in Bert Stern’s film).
This film was completed just a few weeks before O’Day’s death in November 2006 and features quite a lot of interview footage, not only with O’Day herself (some of it archival footage, notably her appearances on The Dick Cavett Show and 60 Minutes, but most of it shot especially for this film) but also with fellow singers Annie Ross and Margaret Whiting (who actually seems jealous of O’Day even though she had a much bigger career and a happier life) and some of the usual — and a few unusual — talking heads, notably pianist/jazz educator Billy Taylor, bandleader/arranger Gerald Wilson and trumpeter Joe Newman as well as critics Will Friedwald (also recently deceased) and Leonard Feather. O’Day looks back on her career ruefully but with a determination not to dwell on the past — “It’s past! What are you going to do about it now?” — and makes the fascinating statement that in order to be a great jazz performer you need to live the “jazz life.” It’s not altogether clear what she means by that — if she means you have to be an alcoholic or a drug addict she’s discernibly wrong (many of jazz’s greatest talents, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie, ducked those bullets and prospered artistically and financially); rather, it seems to mean that you have to go through life loosely and with a sense of freedom similar to that in the music itself.
The one part of this movie that really rubbed me the wrong way was the archival clip from Leonard Feather, who said that O’Day was the only white singer he regarded as the artistic equal of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan — all the more annoying because the filmmakers presented that in a context that suggested they agreed with him — which is of course sheer nonsense: in the generation before O’Day’s there were Mildred Bailey (who influenced just about every subsequent woman jazz singer, white or Black!) and the Boswell Sisters, and in O’Day’s generation there were June Christy (whom O’Day recruited to replace her in the Kenton band), Chris Connor and the awesome Peggy Lee, whom Feather probably wasn’t thinking of as a jazz singer because she recorded commercial pops and had hits with them — indeed, as I noted above, Lee had the career O’Day should have had!
There’s a rather sad coda to Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, in which Cavolina and McCrudden depict her late-in-life comeback and the gigs she played in the 1990’s and 2000’s as proof of her glorious indomitability — she’s shown entertaining the 1990’s “swing kids” who seem all too aware that she was one of the last living links between them and the real swing era — and O’Day seemed to go along with that when she called her final album Indestructible (she’s shown signing copies of it in the documentary and it makes us realize that O’Day is one of the few artists whose recording career began with 78’s and ended with CD’s) — when there’s something tragic about the bits of her final singing we hear: her musician’s instincts and skill at phrasing were still in evidence, but the voice itself was almost totally gone. Instrumentalists lose their capabilities as they age, too, but it’s harder when your “instrument” is also an integral part of your body; Artur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz could still perform stunningly at the end of very long lives (as, in the jazz field, did centenarian Eubie Blake and relative “spring chicken” Earl “Fatha” Hines in his 70’s at a concert I saw at UC Berkeley in January 1976), but O’Day, like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, just stuck it out too long and made late-in-life records that were poor echoes of what she had been at her best. Still, Anita O’Day’s roller-coaster life story is an inspiring tale of sheer survival against all odds, and her recorded legacy establishes her as one of the jazz greats — and Cavolina and McCrudden honor her with deep respect and love in their film.