Posts Tagged ‘Anita O’Day’


Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Anita O’Day. There will never be another like her in the history of jazz. Along with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and perhaps one or two others, she influenced scores of jazz singers and virtually created a language — and set the standard– for true, modern jazz singing.

And yes, she lived what used to be called the “jazz life,” with a decades-long substance abuse problem, destructive relationships, and what can gently be termed as career highs and career lows.

But through her astounding professional life, that lasted from the early 1930s to her death in 2006, she always, always performed at the highest level. As detailed in her 1981 autobiography, “High Times, Hard Times,” life was rarely easy, and she almost lost that life more than once due to addiction.

Professionally, she was a perfectionist who only demanded of her accompanists what she demanded of herself.

Above all, Anita O’Day was a survivor. In the true sense of the word.

Jazz aficionados are fortunate that O’Day was amply represented on recordings, both authorized and unauthorized, from 1941 until her death, and that a good amount of performance film exists. Those films include her film shorts with Gene Krupa from the early 1940s, her memorable appearance in the legendary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival from 1958 and a guest stint on the Timex All-Star Jazz television show from the same year with Krupa and Lionel Hampton, a wonderful concert from Japan in 1963, a hard-hitting turn on “60 Minutes” profile from 1980, and various other odds and ends.

As incisive as her autobiography was and is (none other than Madonna was reported to have owned the rights to it for some time) along with the great recordings and videos, Anita O’Day’s real story–and the impact she had and has in the world of jazz–has never really been told. Until now.

“Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer” is an award-winning film, completed in 2007 and now available on DVD for the first time, that truly tells the tale of a certifiable legend. Co-directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden, this marvelous production includes film of Anita’s interviews with Dick Cavett, David Frost, Bryant Gumble (that one is worth the price of admission), and comments from her fellow artists and collaborators through the years, including Buddy Bregman, Russ Garcia, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, Annie Ross, George Wein and Joe Wilder.

Taken as a cinematic whole, “Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer” is, quite simply, Academy Award-winning material.

Most visitors know O’Day’;s history, but for those who may want a refresher, her first break as a singer was in 1938, when she began appearing at Chicago’s Off-Beat club, where she caught the attention of Krupa. She continued working around Chicago until she joined the GK crew in 1941. Her duet with Krupa trumpeter Roy Eldridge, “Let Me Off Uptown,” became a hit, and she was named “New Star of the Year” by DownBeat magazine. When Krupa disbanded in 1943, she briefly joined Woody Herman’s band, then the orchestra of Stan Kenton, where she again hit on wax with “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine.” She rejoined Krupa in 1945 and stayed a year. Many fans of that “ace drummer man” consider the his 1945 band to be his best. After that, she worked as a single.

Her contribution to the Krupa band was a substantial one (and they had a number of live and recorded reunions until Gene’s death in 1973). Before her arrival in the Krupa fold in 1941, and the arrival of co-hort Roy Eldridge, the band was a not-particularly-distinguished swing crew that was highlighted by a few decent soloists and more than a few drum features by the leader. When Anita and Roy came on the scene, the band caught fire–and Gene said this many times throughout his career– and remained one of the top bands in the business until Gene gave it up in 1951.

From 1952 to 1962, in addition to touring nationwide, she recorded a series of 17 albums for Norman Granz’ Verve label and its various imprints. On an artistic basis and without exception, they still stand up today as among the most remarkable recordings in jazz history. Individually and collectively, they reveal a timeless “hipness,” sense of swing and overall sensitivity that will never, ever go out of style.

In the latter 1960s, O’Day recorded a well-received series of albums for a record company she owned and operated, Emily Records. Indeed, aside from the efforts of Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie in the early 1950s, Emily was among the few, “jazz artist owned and operated” record companies in the history of jazz.

Her final album, “Indestructible,” was recorded in 2004 and 2005, and released in 2006. It was her first recorded effort in 13 years. She died in November of 2006, seven months after its release.

Singular credit must be given to Robbie Cavolina, who was O’Day’s manager for some years, and truly the mastermind behind “Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer.” He almost single-handedly ensured that O’Day got the credit she deserved as an icon and an innovator during her lifetime, and that, almost until the end, she kept working. That Anita O’Day was around for 87 years–and still singing–had much to do with his dedication.

Jazz has been blessed with a pretty comprehensive filmed history, especially in the last 15 years or so, with performance films, features and documentaries. I’ve made a few of them myself.

This one is the best. — Bruce Klauber

“Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer” is available in two editions: The standard edition is a two-DVD set that includes a 32-page, full color booklet with essays by noted jazz historians James Gavin and Will Friedwald, plus 16 pages of Anita O’Day’s scrapbooks. The deluxe edition includes the above, along with a 144-page, hard bound coffee table book of O’Day’s 1939 to 1969 scrapbooks.This edition contains much rare Krupa material as well Both are available via most online ordering outlets. For more information, visit, the official web site of Anita O’Day.


Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

Jazz lost yet another innovative original, singer Anita O’Day, who passed away at the age of 87 Thursday, November 23rd. Considering the life she led, well detailed in her autobiography of some years back, “High Times, Hard Times;” it is simply amazing that she made it past 50 years of age. And she was singing, after a fashion, just about up until the end. 

O’Day was at the forefront of an entire school of jazz vocalists from Chris Connor and June Christy on up and on down, and it’s a “school” that continues today in various guises. For instance, O’Day’s amazingly wide sphere of influence included plenty of jazz-oriented popsters, including the likes of Joanie Sommers. Britain’s Stacey Kent, who sounds almost exactly like Sommers (though Kent told me she never really listened to Joanie), is therefore, in a way, an O’Day student, albeit a couple of times removed. Plenty of male singers got he message as well. It’s hard to believe that Mel Torme’, for instance, didn’t listen closely to Anita. 

She, along with Roy Eldridge, really helped put the Gene Krupa band on the popular and critical map upon their arrival in 1941. Gene’s crew, until then, was a good, more-than competent and always musically swinging crew, though it never really came across on records. Though the band had some good singers, soloists and arrangers, there was nothing utterly distinctive about it until Anita and Roy arrived. It wasn’t long after their arrival that Krupa had two, real “stars” on his hands, and a number of hit records, to boot. Anita always had great, great words about her days with the band, and Gene’s drumming in particular, and this was from someone whose quotient of kind words through the years were measured carefully. And no, for the tabloid-oriented amongst us, O’Day verified a number of times that she never had an affair with Krupa. So there! 

Anita O’Day was among the very, very few in jazz history to successfully modernize as time went on. Her groundbreaking work for Norman Granz Verve record label in the 1950s was more than an extension of cool. Anita O’Day was cool by being hot, if that is possible. She always swung and swung hard. Her scatting was refreshing, inventive, surprising and often rhythmically impossible. She could not, quite simply, get lost, and some of those 1950s charts–Gary McFarland’s, for one–were darned difficult. O’Day even drove Oscar Peterson, a speed wizard if there ever was one back then, to extremes. 

With the arrival of The Beatles, the entire entertainment business changed and it would never be the same. Julie LaRosa, a fine and underrated singer, once told me, “Before the Beatles, we were thrilled if we could fill a 400-seat club. After their arrival, if you couldn’t fill a 20,000-seat stadium, you couldn’t get work. 

It was no different for Anita O’Day, though it was likely worse, given the hard times jazz experienced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In those years, and the sordid details have been repeated often enough elsewhere, she survived drug overdoses, arrests, periods of “almost-homelessness” and worse. Yet musically, when she had the chance, most often for her own Emily record label, Anita continued to evolve, at times foreshadowing what Betty Carter would much later take, to these ears, excess. As “far out” as she may have gone harmonically and rhythmically, Anita O’Day never forgot the lyric. Others did. In those years, like many artists in similar situations, she took work where she could. The scenarios were not often pleasant. Her general frustration with the scene and with the bread, to say nothing of her difficulties at the time with alcohol made for some strange situations on the bandstand. At a small club in Philadelphia, for instance, Anita berated the local trio backing her–on the stage–because they didn’t know “Let Me Off Uptown,” even though there was no chart for it in her book. 

She did some nice work in the 1980s, buoyed by the response to her autobiography (Madonna at one time held the film rights to it), interviews on “60 Minutes and other national television shows, work at festivals, etc. At long last, this miraculous survivor was deservedly deemed a legend. 

If all had been right with the world, she would have bowed out gracefully at the end of the 1980s, appearing at ceremonial occasions to be justifiably honored as amongst the universe’s most influential artists. Although her chops were just about shot, she kept on singing. Too, too often, the results were variable. Who knows why she kept on. Bread? Glory? The fact that singing was all she knew? Who knows? Ali, Sinatra, Joe Louis comprise just a very few who, in the opinion of the public, stayed too long at the fair. Or did they? The public kept on coming and kept applauding. Isn’t that what was and is important? 

Cut to the latter 1990s and the year 2000 until now. Though I don’t know all the details, some time during those years, a relative youngster by the name of Robbie Cavolina attached himself to Anita O’Day, billed himself as her “manager,” and began booking her all over the world. The problem was, that Anita O’Day could no longer sing in any way, shape or form, and if my time with her several years ago at the Denver Jazz on Film Festival was any indication, she had little idea where she was. The whole idea of it was, simply, pitiful, and smacked of the grossest exploitation possible. Not too long ago, Cavolina had the unmitigated nerve to trot O’Day into a recording studio–or living room, as it sounded on the CD–to record something called “Indefatigable,” one of the saddest and most embarrassing documents ever recorded by anyone. It is an insult of the lowest kind to the legacy of Anita O’Day, and could have only been done for one reason: bread. If Anita O’Day, the consummate artist, had any idea what was happening, she would have never allowed it. It is a sin that Robbie Cavolina did. 

A year or two ago, word came that a documentary on O’Day’s life was in preparation, and such a document is long, long overdue. The film is said to me almost completed, and tt’s a shame that Anita did not live to see it. I did, however, get a glance at the preliminary credits for the picture, and it lists none other than Mr. Robbie Cavolina as “director,” “producer” and “writer.” I hope he finally gets some money out of the whole thing which, to me, is why he went into this game to begin with. Anita O’Day, at the very end, deserved better. 

Bruce Klauber December, 2006