Heroine

by David Hajdu | December 25, 2006

Anita O'Day, the unblushing archetype of the jazz-singing bad girl, died of a heroin overdose in 1966, or so reported at least one newspaper after she was found unconscious on the floor of a restroom in a Los Angeles office building, a hypodermic needle dangling from one of her arms. The first doctor to see her detected no heartbeat and mistook her for dead--much as several times before and after that day, jazz listeners and critics gave up on O'Day and thought her finished, only to watch her revive, unaccountably. In April of this year, at the age of eighty-six, she released a new album, Indestructible!, which is also the title of a documentary film about O'Day that has been in the works for a few years. She defied her assessors one last time on Thanksgiving Day, when she finally did die, for real, of complications from pneumonia.

Most of the encomia published about O'Day immediately after her death portrayed her as she had been depicted since the first of her four drug busts, nearly sixty years earlier--as a jazz cliché, a hedonistic misfit who endured self-inflicted torture for her art. The New York Times, in the headline of its obituary, referred to O'Day as the "Hard-Living Star of the Big Band Era and Beyond," and the Los Angeles Times, likewise, called her the "Renowned Singer Billed as the 'Jezebel of Jazz.'" Online, the chat among devotees of jazz and cabaret singing tended toward a contrary extreme, striving to extricate O'Day's legacy as an artist from her popular image on the ground that her work should stand on its own strengths, untainted by her personal weaknesses and adventures.

O'Day took both points of view about herself in various stages of her long life. She came up with that billing, the "Jezebel of Jazz," herself. (O'Day started singing professionally in her native Chicago in 1939, a few months after the release of the Bette Davis movie Jezebel, and in her pert manner and clipped speech O'Day always had a hint of Davis.) She was candid about her drug use (outside the courtroom) and blunt about her thirst for kicks. "Three-quarters of the time, I was higher than a kite," she noted in her memoir, co-written with George Eells and titled High Times Hard Times. "All my life I've wanted to be where the action is. My ambition? Be street smart. Brazen it out. Never look back. [I] gloried in shocking people."

But when her book was published and the resulting publicity centered on her drug use, her abuse of alcohol, and her sexual exploits, O'Day recoiled. In 1981 she walked off the set of the Today show when she was asked how long she had done heroin, and she resented the new faces in her audience--the "different breed of cat" she perceived as "there to stare at the woman who'd done all the things they never dared to do." O'Day suffered what she called a mini-breakdown and retreated to the three-room mobile home she kept in a trailer park on the outskirts of Palm Springs.

A few years later, I interviewed her briefly in her dressing room before she performed at Rainbow and Stars, the nightclub that used to be atop Rockefeller Center, and she was drunk and eager to say so. "I'm smashed," she said, by way of an introduction. "It helps me swing." With that comment--and, more eloquently, with the enchanting, mercurial music she made later that evening--O'Day showed the error in defining her by either her substance abuse or her singing alone. The two were not inextricable; they were one.

Although O'Day performed and recorded proficiently when she was straight--in her early days, as a singer with the Gene Krupa big band, as well as in her final decades, after she kicked her sixteen-year heroin habit--O'Day did her greatest, most enduring, and most influential work while she was stoned out of her mind. More to the point, the music was not merely made possible by drugs; it was music of the drug experience, an expression of what it meant for its singer to be high. It remains potent, music of euphoria and abandon, and the fact that it derives its potency not simply from human gifts but from the submission of those gifts to narcotics is the treachery, the exhilarating and harrowing glory, of Anita O'Day's music.

The high points of her career, in every sense, were the albums that O'Day recorded between 1954 and 1961 for Verve Records, many of them made under the direct supervision of the label's founder, Norman Granz. In the early 1990s, Granz remembered his sessions with O'Day as extraordinarily efficient, almost effortless--that is, from the time she entered the studio to the time she left, a short while later. "All the work [had to be] done in advance," Granz recalled. "I'm talking about the set-ups, the run-throughs, everything but her part," because O'Day refused to rehearse or record more than one take, as a rule. "It had to be spontaneous for her," Granz said, "regardless of what that involved for the rest of us."

Indeed, O'Day spoke from time to time of her fondness for winging recording sessions and live performances. She preferred to work with musicians who were new to her, doing arrangements she had not heard before. The pleasure that O'Day sought from music was purely experiential--kinetic, fleeting, druggy. She thought of music as something she would rather not think about, but simply feel and do. When singing with unfamiliar musicians, she once explained to an interviewer, "the whole timing is a little off balance, and it keeps you on your toes. When you get your own group going, it gets too relaxed. The way I do it, each tune is a horse race."

Most of O'Day's output for Verve can be downloaded through iTunes or the website of PolyGram/Universal, and the spontaneity of her singing for the label is still thrilling to hear some fifty years after the recording sessions. She blurts out phrases, dispenses with the composers' melodies, drops lines at whim, breaks words into odd-shaped bits, and slips off the charts altogether into riffs of scattershot notes and guttural quasi-notes. Her strength was not a commitment to the material, but a devotion to the moment. This approach gave her music a disarming off-handedness--genuine casualness, rather than the affected nonchalance of, say, Mel Torme. Among the best evidence: "Honeysuckle Rose," from the 1955 album This Is Anita, the watershed of O'Day's tenure at Verve; "Don't Be That Way," from its fine 1956 follow-up, Pick Yourself Up With Anita O'Day; and "Tea for Two," recorded live with a jazz combo in 1958 for Anita O'Day at Mister Kelly's.

O'Day's casualness could also drift into indifference, undermine the song, clash with its arrangement, or throw off the musicians in the band. Ill-suited to the meticulously elliptical melodies of Jerome Kern and the unorthodox, rangy tunes of Duke Ellington, she faked her way through demanding numbers such as "I'm Old Fashioned" and "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me." As she explained in interviews, melodic precision never interested her, because it calls for discipline and a regard for convention. "It gets a little dumb singing melody every night," O'Day said. Nor was she particularly concerned with lyrical content. On the whole, O'Day employed words for their sounds rather than their meaning, as if they were scat syllables that also happened to be in the dictionary. She seemed deaf to lyrical subtext--and often to the text itself, sometimes ignoring even the basic sense of a song. If she wanted to swing it, she simply did not care if "Ten Cents a Dance" was supposed to be a melancholy lament.

O'Day used her voice like a jazz instrument, and it sounded like one. She had a dry, chilly tone, a sister to the sound of Miles Davis's trumpet. Like Davis, she articulated in short bursts with little or no vibrato. (When O'Day was a child, a surgeon accidentally sliced off part of her uvula during a tonsillectomy, limiting her ability to employ vibrato, even if she wanted to. On several occasions when I saw her perform, she appeared to rattle her head slightly to produce a vibrato-like effect.) Chris Connor and June Christy, both of whom followed O'Day in and out of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, emulated O'Day, as have countless lessers who have wanted to imitate that cool-jazz vibe. O'Day, for all the good work she left the world, is also to blame for Sade.

Reared as a singer in Gene Krupa's hard-driving dance band, O'Day had impeccable time. Whatever the tempo, she swung. Her scat singing had dazzling rhythmic vigor and complexity. (Will Friedwald, the author of the fine book Jazz Singing, has described O'Day's bravura scatting as "rhythmic exhibitionism.") Her first husband was a drummer, as was her longtime best friend John Poole, who served as the only constant in her bands for decades and who, at O'Day's insistence, first turned her on to heroin. "Rhythm is my thing," O'Day said matter-of-factly in my only conversation with her. Her breath control was inadequate to sustain notes, she explained, so she compensated by accentuating time. Besides, she said, inimitably, "sustained notes are boring."

Boredom was the one thing that was intolerable to O'Day. Her music was the manifesto of her devotion to kicks at all cost. Ecstatic, indulgent, risky, excessive, and volatile, it was drug music, improvised in a state of simulated euphoria and imagined immunity. To make such music was an act of fearlessness, though not of bravery. O'Day, pickled by dope, knew no fear; but it was Ella Fitzgerald, lucid as she willed impossible scat lines into being, who was brave.

O'Day has long been an artist more difficult to accept than she is to appreciate, because of the primacy of dope in her aesthetic. We like our junkies tragic, preferably taken before their time, like O'Day's long-gone contemporaries Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday (or, in rock and roll, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain); and in their music we want to find the evidence of mad genius run wild (Parker) or gothic decay (Holiday). We know that heroin is an evil soul-killing venom, and that is pretty much all we want to know about it. We want to hear only about heroin's inevitable betrayal, not about its seduction. We most certainly do not want to think that music as spirited and delightful as Anita O'Day's work in her prime could be good because of its debt to heroin.

'I've sometimes thought there's a Good Anita and a Bad Anita fighting for dominance," O'Day ruminated in her memoir, adding that the latter, "who wants to shock, mock and put everything down," was "definitely in control" during the early 1950s. She had plenty of practice. O'Day first earned her reputation as a bad girl while she was an actual girl, quitting high school and leaving home at age fourteen to make her living as a dance partner for hire in the Depression-era dance-a-thon events (as in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, speaking of heroin). Recalling the work years later, O'Day described it as "the endurance business." As such, it clearly trained her well. She changed her surname from Colton to O'Day--"pig Latin [for] dough, which is what I hoped to make"--and started singing at the dance-a-thons for extra income. By the time she was nineteen, she was singing in Chicago's Off-Beat Club, where Gene Krupa heard her and signed her in 1941.

She was attractive--"Anita O'Day could stand and let the customers be happy just looking, but for good measure she swings the hottest songs," wrote a critic for the Chicago Tribune before O'Day joined Krupa--but declined to serve as a "trinket to decorate the bandstand," insisting on wearing a band jacket "just like the guys" in the orchestra. It was a radical step at the time, and one that prompted early rumors that O'Day was a lesbian. "She was a wild chick, all right," Krupa later said, "but how she can sing!"

Her best-known recording for Krupa was "Let Me Off Uptown," a duet with Roy Eldridge, the brilliant trumpeter and occasional singer. The record was scandalous in its day for the saucy interplay between Eldridge and O'Day, a black man and a white woman, not to mention the fact that O'Day asked, in the lyrics, to be dropped off alone in the section of town where "it's rhythm that you feel" and "it's pleasure you're about." Rhythm and pleasure, race and sex: all O'Day needed was drugs to cement her name as a hepcat girl gone wild, and she took care of that with her first bust, for possession of marijuana, in 1947. "I tried everything--I was curious. I went my own way," O'Day told me, not long before she abruptly snapped that the interview was over because she was bored. She had nothing to say that she hadn't told someone else before, and she couldn't stand to repeat herself. "This is corny," she said. She chastised me for failing to come up with questions she had never heard. She finished her drink and said, "I think this stuff is keeping me alive."

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