Discovering Anita O’Day

I’m a fan of jazz and the blues. A big fan. But mostly of the old school stuff. And mostly the big names. But recently a friend of mine sent me these wonderful clips of Anita O’Day, who I hadn’t really listened to prior to my friend’s email. She’s written me a wonderful introduction to O’Day, which I am duplicating here for the benefit of any other potentially unfamiliar readers, followed by video clips that were a delight. I hope you enjoy them.

some background info:

in the summer of 1958, Newport RI had an extraordinary weekend that was captured on film in a documentary called Jazz on a Summer’s Day (avail on netflix instaplay). one of the greatest jazz fests in history, it had all the greats when they were in their prime — like Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson, Thelonius Monk, Dinah Washington… just amazing for a jazz lover.

one act stole the show and catapulted the performer to international success. Anita O’Day, known as the “Jezebel of Jazz” (for doing time for marijuana) was already 20 years into her career when this festival took place. in later interviews she claims this to have been the biggest day of her life. because of the press she got from this, Japan went nuts over her and she ended up spending many years there.

her performance is nearly flawless, and now legendary. but not only that, she looks frickin amazing. so elegant, so chic, so hip and swingin’ too.

and so very high on heroin! you can see it especially when she introduces “Mr Jones!” watch for it. she had a 16 year, very serious heroin addiction that she kicked when she overdosed and had to be brought back to life in 1968 (ten years after this performance).

she wasnt very educated. she dropped out of school and left home at 14 i think and joined a marathon dance troupe that travelled the country. she sang whenever they let her. when she was a kid she had her tonsils taken out and a “slip of the knife” took her uvula. she always asserted that her lack of a uvula made it impossible to carry long notes and make her voice vibrato without shaking her head around. so she overcompensated. and the result is that she is known for being a human instrument. she does things with her throat and velum that no one else thought to do. i’ve seen her sing one part of a piece that was composed for 4 saxophones. just her and three saxes. no lyrics, just scatting. mind blowing. she’s also known for what she does with time. her timing is amazing. and she never sang anything the same way twice. it was all improv, truly what jazz musicians are best known for. she’s just really really good. usually this is qualified with the phrase “for a white girl” which i think is completely unfair, and also the reason why it took me so long to give her a listen-to. she is every bit as good as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday.

when i watch her, i keep thinking stuff like “what a dame!” lol. but she is. she’s totally one of the guys too. but she looks so ladylike and sophisticated. she even joked that she was so much one of the guys, that the girls lined up to see her too after the show! it makes me sad that i didnt discover her until recently. i think she just passed away a few years ago. like 2006 or something. and she sang up till the end.

the other thing i love about this film is that it’s a great time capsule. it’s real Americans in their real clothes, not expecting to be filmed. and everyone is so cool! and diverse!this thing is SO American — and that is completely a wonderful thing here. (unlike nowadays when “American” seems to be more of a negative adjective.) also, just think about the footage you’ve seen from this time period. like the JFK stuff, whic is actually 6 years later. because this is from a documentary, the quality of the film is very good, and not grainy or choppy. this also means that it was edited and polished. so maybe the parts where the crowd look bored dont really match. but i like that too, that’s it’s not just someone’s home movie.

so — check out the clothes, the characters! the sunglasses alone are fun to see! i love everyone in this clip. you cant catch it all in one viewing. but first, watch Anita. and listen to her phrasing. this is her at her best.

p.s. bonus clip! here is the trailer for the documentary about her.

two more funny bits of Anita trivia:  she chose her stage name “O’Day” because it’s “dough” in Pig Latin.  she thought maybe it would bring her luck and she’d make some dough.

also, she once told her boss she was taking a 5min break between sets.  she went out for a walk… and 5 years later, she calls the guy from the Philippines and asks for a $1000 dollars to get back home.  and yes, he gave it to her.  haha.







3 responses to “Discovering Anita O’Day”

  1. Adrienne Avatar

    She was such a person, someone I wish I had known. I did not know about her greatness although I had heard many of her songs in the 60’s. She is my mother’s age. But she is so real, she will always be young. Her life story, I am sure will be made into a movie. A person that has given me motivation in life at the far end of mine. She had no one really. But her music. That was her life. She never let it go. It kept her alive when most people would have given up. She really never had a lot of money. Just kept getting the next gig to keep her going. An amazing woman that kept reinventing her music. When listening to her music throughout her life you can hear the changes in her style. How she become her own person within her music.I listen to her music every day. Her life is in the words of her songs. She has given me so much inspiration for life. I hope there is someone still alive that knew her. I would be so interested in reading more about Anita.

  2. Benjamin Rosenbaum Avatar

    My mom (also, you will recall, from Ohio) is a big Anita O’Day fan. Though I think Sarah Vaughn (the Divine Sarah) is her favorite…

    1. Christopher Barzak Avatar

      The Divine Sarah is one of my favorites, too! Also, I love Dinah Washington! 🙂

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