Anita O’Day was one of our premier jazz and big band artist who lived her life without ever looking back – as described in the award-winning film documentary Anita O’Day – The Life of A Jazz Singer and her autobiography High Times Hard Times . Both are no- holds-barred accounts of her career’s ups and downs, including a 20-year addiction to heroin and alcohol.
Jazz SInger is filled with vivid, candid images of many of her compatriots in the world of jazz and big bands. Some of her more fascinating observations:
Gene Krupa: “When Gene played Drum Boogie or Drummer Man, there was no mistaking that he had incorporated the best of Chicago drummers such as Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, and dozens of black drummers from the South Side plus sounds of the Belgian Congo to create the Krupa style. To this day, people believe that Gene was a hard drug addict. Untrue. He never touched heroin or cocaine. All he did was smoke a few joints and drink lots of Scotch.”
Billie Holiday: “She blasted Artie Shaw in Downbeat saying, ‘Artie never paid me for Any Old Time . With Basie, I got seventy dollars a week, with Artie sixty -five dollars. Lady Day is the one true genius among jazz singers. Only somebody who’d gone through the things she did and survived could sing from the soul the way she did. I wasn’t only in awe of her singing. I was in awe of her habit. She didn’t cook up with a spoon. She used a small tuna fish can and shot 10 cc into her feet.”
Woody Herman: “Woody paid higher salaries and got better musicians than Gene. Maybe not more talented, but more dependable. He was alert to little changes in music and would change his approach to keep up with the times.”
Stan Kenton: “Stanley wasn’t anymore interested in pandering to popular taste than I was. Swing was the thing then and Stanley wasn’t into it. His worship of Ellington made him look upon Ellington as a minor god. He never seemed to rest. After the last performance, he’d stay on at the theater working on arrangements. He had a cot in the theater basement where he usually slept.”
Stan Getz: “When seventeen-year-old Stan joined Kenton, he begged me to get Stanley to let him take a solo. Finally he got one. The only thing he knew were eighth notes, but he went out and played the whole thing in eighth notes and everybody fell off their chairs. He was always working on that saxophone and progressed until he got too far out for me. Whatever the melody was, I couldn’t find it. And I’m a professional. What did ordinary listeners get out of it ? But, listening to that tenor sax was pure joy most of the time.”
Dizzy Gillespie: “A straight cat who never used grass or any other drug, he once played a spirited bebop solo from the branches of a tree in our yard.”
Peggy Lee: “She changed with the times and stayed on top for many years but she didn’t improvise. Her piano player for many years told me she always did the same song the same way night after night. If the musicians varied the backing, she faltered.”
Carmen McRae: “Carmen is a wonderful singer. This chick has a lot of voice, a lot of chops. But, in my opinion, she can’t sing a fast tune and really get on time.”
Sarah Vaughn: “Sarah’s got great chops, good sound, but, on a fast tune, she runs behind the beat.”
Ella Fitzgerald: “She is, more or less, first. Whatever her approach, she can sing a ballad, an uptune, a novelty, almost anything. But, like me, she doesn’t have a really good voice. She’s a straight cat who doesn’t drink hard liquor, take drugs or make waves.”
Charlie Parker: “I idolized Charlie. He was one of the great jazz geniuses of all time. He changed the whole face of music. When Louis Armstrong became popular, all trumpet players had to change their styles. Not the rest of the band. When Charlie became popular, everybody in the band had to change their style.”
Benny Goodman: “I was thrilled to be part of Benny’s world but, as I’d heard, he doesn’t want anyone or anything to stand out above him and his orchestra. If it does, he doesn’t just compete, he undercuts the competition. He’ll pick his teeth during your number, sit behind you and pick his nose or scratch his private parts – do anything to distract the audience’s attention.”
My friend, Danny D’Imperio, was her drummer for several years in the 90’s. He recorded a CD with her called Live at Vine Street (available on Amazon) with Pete Jolly (piano), Gordon Brisker (tenor), Bob Maize (bass), and Steve Homan (guitar). Danny says, “At that time a movie was being considered based on Anita’s book. Faye Dunaway was being considered to play Anita. Faye walked into the Vine St. club during the recording and Anita inserted into the lyrics ‘Faye Dunaway, Hi girl’”.
Who was her favorite singer ? According to Danny, “Everybody thinks she wasn’t influenced by another singer but she once told me that her main influence was Martha Raye. I’ve got a Charlie Barnet record and Martha Raye is singing on a couple tunes. Sounds exactly like Anita.”
She told Danny that she’d bought the distinctive black dress, black hat with white feathers and white gloves for her famous appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz festival from a dress shop in town the afternoon of the concert. It had been raining and she slipped going up those steps at Freebody Park. George Wein kept her from falling. She was high as a kite.
Her performance became the highlight of the award-winning documentary Jazz on A Summer’s Day. (Among the rave reviews, the New York Times reported that, “her Sweet Georgia Brown and Tea for Two was as vivid and insinuating as is Mahalia Jackson booming The Lord’s Prayer.”
Danny went to Japan with her twice and also to Europe. “She was an intrepid drinker and I went right along with her most of the time. I did ten weeks with her at Michael’s Pub in NYC booked as Anita O’Day and the Gene Krupa Legend (I played Gene Krupa). I did the Blue Note with her and Fat Tuesdays. Biff Hannon, pianist, was with her for some of the time but he quit drinking so she fired him. Can you imagine getting fired for QUITTING DRINKING?
“I have a wet season and a dry season. My dry season runs from January 2nd to July 4th. Then I go wet. One time in March of one of those years, I arrived in Italy. We’d been traveling on different flights and both hit the front desk simultaneously. As we were checking in she said, ‘I’ll see you in the bar in 15 minutes.’
“I said, ‘Colton’ I’m not drinking’.(I always called her by her real last name which was ‘Colton’). She became irate and said, ‘I once fired a piano player because he quit drinking. I’LL SEE YOU IN THE BAR!’ Suffice to say, my dry season was cut in half that year. I remember how, like in Days of WIne and Roses , we used to clean out the courtesy bars in Europe and refill the vodka miniatures with water and return them to the small refrigerators.
“She was past her prime then as a ‘looker’ but it got close for us one night when she was in my room. She had her hair in curlers and we were both loaded. I just couldn’t do it. I asked her how long it had been….she responded, ‘I haven’t gotten l–d since 1952’”.
Joe Glaser, the legendary agent who was Anita’s booking agent for many years (including two bands I managed), used to say to her, “Anita, you’ve got a million dollars worth of talent and no class.”
I’ll take the talent – nobody’s perfect.
References: High Times Hard Times Anita O’Day. 1981 Limelight Editions;
Anita O’Day: The Life of A Jazz Singer . Amazon.com.