By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006; 2:18 PM
Anita O'Day, 87, whose breathy voice and witty improvisation made her one of
the most dazzling jazz singers of the last century and whose sex appeal and
drug addiction earned her the nickname "the Jezebel of Jazz," died Nov. 23
in West Los Angeles, according to her Web site.
Ms. O'Day led one of the roughest lives in jazz, surpassed only by her idol,
Billie Holiday. Impoverished and largely abandoned in childhood, she left
her home in Chicago to work as a marathon walker and dancer during the
Depression. About that time, she changed her surname from Colton to O'Day,
pig Latin for "dough," slang for money.
A mental breakdown, a rape, numerous abortions, a 14-year addiction to
heroin and time in jail all contributed to her legend as a survivor over a
five-decade career. She could be cantankerous in manner and dismissive of
interviewers trying to moralize about her experiences. She seemed to live
always in the present, going so far as to claim she never read her 1981
as-told-to autobiography, appropriately titled "High Times, Hard Times."
First as a replacement singer in a nightclub, she honed a freely swinging
singing style that led to a career with some of the top bands of the period.
Critics wrote rhapsodically about her, with Nat Hentoff declaring her "the
most authentically hot jazz singer of all."
In the 1940s, when most "girl singers" were pert appendages to a featured
band, Ms. O'Day was a star attraction who often enlivened the orchestra with
her playful and inspired vocals. She said she saw herself as an
instrumentalist and was often seen wearing a band uniform, instead of an
evening gown, to publicly demonstrate her musicality over her striking
She was among the hippest women singers of the big-band period, lending rare
emotional resonance to the relentlessly uptempo and brassy big bands of Gene
Krupa and Stan Kenton. She gave both orchestras their first million-selling
hits, doing a rare interracial duet on "Let Me Off Uptown" with Krupa
trumpeter Roy Eldridge and then the novelty number "And Her Tears Flowed
Like Wine" with Kenton's ensemble.
With Verve records in the 1950s, she performed some of the most inventive
interpretations of jazz standards. Andy Razaf, who wrote the words to Fats
Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose," once said hers was the definitive version of
the tune -- even surpassing Waller's earlier recording of the song.
Ms. O'Day was sometimes compared with Holiday, with whom she shared a
tendency to project vulnerability through a calculated crack in her tone.
She also enjoyed the unpredictability of verbal improvisation and was highly
regarded for her scat singing.
As a rule, she once said, she sang the melody straight when accompanying big
bands but felt freer to mold the melody with her own ideas.
Her signature sound was to create an elasticity with words, often to break
them down to faster eight and sixteenth notes instead of the quarter notes
that were harder for her to sustain. This tendency was the result of a
childhood tonsillectomy in which the doctor had accidentally removed her
uvula, the bit of flesh that hangs from the back of the mouth and that
vibrations of which control tone.
To compensate, she would stretch single-syllable words in a playful and
often sexy manner; "you" would be "you-ew-ew-ew," love would became
"When you haven't got that much voice, you have to use all the cracks and
crevices and the black and the white keys," she once said.
Even during her addiction to heroin in the 1950s and 1960s, Hentoff and
Leonard Feather noted her stunning vocal talents. As jazz fell out of
popular favor, she continued to sing but in smaller venues. She was not left
with much money -- much of it having gone to support her drug habit -- and
she wrote in her 1981 autobiography that she lived for singing.
In 1984, Ms. O'Day told The Washington Post that she viewed herself as a
stylist grounded in rhythm more than a singer with showy technique. "I even
took vocal lessons and I tried to get all these tones going and I never
thought to look inside the throat," she said. "It was all from inside, from
the heart, desire."
Ms. O'Day was born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago, where her father was a
printer and her mother worked at a meat-packing plant.
She recalled in her autobiography her parents constantly fighting--when her
alcoholic father bothered to show up at all. She wrote that they married
only after her mother became pregnant. Her father later left the family and
married a total of 10 women.
As a child, she listened to the radio and sang in church. In the mid-1930s,
she dropped out of school and hitchhiked to Muskegon, Mich., to enter a
walkathon, one of the Depression-era crazes in which the contestants were
fed in exchange for the brutal entertainment. She claimed to have walked 97
consecutive days upright and did not complain because "when you are 14, you
She also sang at some of the events and at other clubs and burlesque houses.
By 1939, as Anita O'Day, she was performing in a downtown Chicago club with
Max Miller's band and received a positive review in Down Beat magazine.
Krupa noticed her in Chicago and hired her and Eldridge in 1941. The jazz
writer Will Friedwald once noted that the new additions "galvanized the
Krupa men and positively transformed the band into one of the most powerful
bands of the great era, putting it in a class with Ellington, Basie, Goodman
and Dorsey. The Krupa-O'Day combination also signified the first time since
Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb that a great jazz singer had been extensively
featured with a great jazz ensemble."
With her hip phrasing and sex appeal, she became a national name. She left
Krupa when he was arrested in 1943 for marijuana possession and rejoined him
in 1946 when he formed a new band. It was with that expert drummer that she
had her biggest renown in the 1940s, starting with her first million-selling
record--and best-known early recording--"Let Me Off Uptown."
That tune paired O'Day's hot and sultry vocalizing with Eldridge's raspy
voice and roaring trumpet. The sexy flirting between the white O'Day and
black Eldridge was groundbreaking. "Do you feel the heat?" she asks
Eldridge, before instructing him to "blow, Roy, blow!"
They also had hits with "Boogie Blues" and "Just a Little Bit South of North
Ms. O'Day worked with some of the loudest, brassiest and hardest-swinging of
mainstream big bands. Besides Krupa's group, she also spent shorter and
less-enjoyable stints with Woody Herman and Kenton, whose intellectual,
"modern" sound did not mesh with her accent on easy swing. She did, however,
credit Kenton with helping her better understand chord structure.
The relentless performing on tour triggered a nervous breakdown. She decided
in 1946 to settle in the Los Angeles area and work alone.
In 1947, she received her first jail sentence, for marijuana possession. In
1953, she was convicted for heroin possession, although she told
interviewers she was framed.
She downplayed her arrests, writing in her autobiography that she "looked on
serving my sentences as a kind of vacation. . . . Rehabilitated? Hardly.
Despite a period of recording less than scintillating songs, such as "The
Tennessee Waltz," her drug notoriety enhanced her career. Her handlers
dubbed her "the Jezebel of Jazz."
In Chicago, she, her second husband and a third partner opened a downtown
jazz club, the Hi Note, where she was the star attraction. Guest performers
included singer Carmen McRae and trumpeter Miles Davis.
In 1956, she was signed by Verve records. The nearly 20 albums she put out
on Verve during the next decade were among her most tantalizing, including
"Anita" (with "Honeysuckle Rose"), "Pick Yourself Up," "Anita O'Day Swings
Cole Porter," "Make Mine Blues," "All the Sad Young Men" and "Travelin'
She also played with Benny Goodman (who in the early 1940s refused to hire
her because she was not disciplined enough to stick to a music chart), Stan
Getz, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Joe
Williams and Oscar Peterson. She also had a 32-year musical association with
drummer John Poole, who she credited with introduced her to heroin. She said
the drug helped her off alcohol but also kept her financially insolvent for
Her vibrant appearance in the 1959 documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day," a
film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, made her a celebrity on an
international level and brought her important musical dates in Japan and
Then, in 1966, she nearly died from a heroin overdose in a bathroom in a Los
Angeles office building. The experience rattled her, and she quit heroin at
Most of her money gone, she spent the rest of her life struggling to put
In the early 1970s, she was living in a $3-a-night hotel in Los Angeles. But
by the end of the decade she had her own record label, Emily Records (named
after her dog), a series of enormously successful club dates with rave
reviews and a resurgence in popularity following her autobiography's
publication. The CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes" broadcast a segment on her.
She alternated between seclusion--she was hesitant to appear before crowds
who came to gawk--and going abroad on well-publicized engagements. She
received her first Grammy nomination in 1990 for "In a Mellow Tone" and in
1997 was given an American Jazz Masters award by the National Endowment for
When interviewed, her voice indicated an unyielding distress and frequent
irritation. She told one reporter that alcohol provided a welcome relief for
her at the end of the day. In 1996, she was diagnosed with permanent
She played jazz dates until late in life--with embarrassing results as her
frailties overtook her talent--and ended her autobiography by saying that
was all she had left. "It's a different world when the music stops," she
But she was to be one of the "living legends" of jazz to be honored in March
2007 at the Kennedy Center as part of its "Jazz in Our Time" festival.
Her marriages to drummer Don Carter, which she said was never consummated,
and golfer Carl Hoff, whom she called unfaithful, ended in divorce.
She said she never wanted children, telling People magazine, "Ethel Kennedy
dropped 11. There are enough people in the world. I did my part by raising
She dedicated her autobiography to her dog.
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Thursday, November 23, 2006
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