Anita O’Day (1919-2006)

God, I don’t know where to start. If you drop by here regularly, you know that I always approach what I write about from a (very) personal and instinctive vantage point. It either has to be very close to my heart or I have to hate it. Both aspects bring out the most passionate responses. Often I have to root around parts in my head that I don’t always like to root around in to drag up or sometimes even unearth things that I buried a long time ago. To make a long story short, this one is going to be one of the more difficult posts to write. Try to bear with me … I’ll get to the point (relatively) soon.

When jazz greats die, there are always tons of people posting their R.I.P. lines on the various jazz forums around, writing up a few lines about how good this or that musician or singer was, what albums they loved and how important said artist was (or wasn’t). This time, when I joined the line of mourners, I tried to write something and could only post a line of sad smileys. That was it.

Why?
You need some patience for the answer.

I hated Germany when I was a kid. I don’t know if you can identify with that kind of feeling, but even today I am totally convinced that ‘hate’ is the best way to describe that feeling that regularly welled up inside of me. Mind you, I had great parents, I had some good friends and I had a more than easy childhood in all respects … but one: I hated school. I despised it. It’s difficult to admit today – being a teacher and trying to motivate kids to do work although they don’t feel like it and would rather be outside, skipping through the landscape – but it’s true. It was probably the worst time of my life, especially the time from 5th grade until 8th grade. I was bad at everything, and whatever I touched turned to shit. Sorry, but there’s no other way of putting it. Languages, natural sciences, sports, even music. If it was something taught at school, I sucked at it and all of it usually blew up in my face. I flunked out once and had to do an extra year and if we hadn’t left the country, I would have flunked out once more. Today then, and I’m absolutely convinced of that, I would have been a total failure, sleeping under bridges and collecting empty bottles to make a few cents every day.

I don’t want to go into all of the details, and they certainly do not belong here, but somehow I fell through all the cracks the German educational system provided. At the time it was customary to stick forty and more kids into a class and it was easy for someone like me to hide in the last row and get by … until the grade reports came around. That time also destroyed my self-confidence completely and it took quite a while to rebuild that from scratch. Today, as a teacher, I have complete understanding for kids that have problems. More often than not, they have nothing to do with their abilities. Often, they are problems produced by a system that still today does not provide any remedies. We still lose kids like that today, and it breaks my heart every time. Yes, I have adapted to the system somewhat, also being too conservative at times to turn my own experience into action, preventing this from happening, but there are changes afoot in our system that might give me the necessary leverage to really help some of those kids.

Very early on then, music became an escape route for me. I don’t know if anyone else around me understood that, but it is still as clear as anything to me today: I fled from all the problems, the negative feelings and the hatred I felt welling up inside of me by immersing myself in music. Sometimes, that immersion was scarily complete: I put on my Koss headphones which my dad bought for me one day (although I wanted to have other ones, I’m eternally grateful he bought that one pair that I used until they literally fell apart 12 years later) and I lost myself in the music, completely.

At the time, I already had quite a few LPs and it was a wild and eclectic mix I was listening to: Status Quo, still my number one band for many of the reasons you can read between the lines above, I had a Simon & Garfunkel compilation, I simply adored Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s triple LP, “Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends …”, their “Trilogy” album and, of course, their version of “Pictures at an Exhibition”, and amongst those and many other LPs I played over and over and over again, there were some jazz LPs that I could call my own. Many of them were compilations, CBS ones or whatever, even K-Tel, if I recall correctly, collecting some artists’ output on a double LP or in another format, but it was some of those that really took me away from all the problems I had with myself and the world around me.

Bear with me, I’m getting there.

In that rather small collection was a double LP with material by Benny Goodman, a man and band I still love today for reasons that should be obvious to you by now. And the drummer that helped not only fuel my escapist imagination but also the wish to become a drummer was Gene Krupa. I don’t need to tell you that Gene Krupa probably made the drums more prominent and splashed them across the front pages more than anyone else in music history. Yes, he was a showman and yes, he was never the most technically skilled drummer, but from today’s vantage point where just about every drummer worthwhile has technical expertise to put any former drummer to shame, Gene Krupa had what I’ve always loved about music: Passion. Endless passion, fun and energy. The guy could play up a steam and could keep things boiling for hours, he knew how to grab a crowd and he also knew what kind of effect he was having on his audience. Gene Krupa was one of a kind, an inspiring drummer and, most importantly, a drummer that commanded respect for what he was doing.

And he had Anita O’Day.

When I started investigating the man and his music, I kept on falling over that singer: Anita O’Day. Yes, you can beat me with a rawhide whip and insist that Anita O’Day didn’t really come into her own until she left Krupa but, from my vantage point, that is not the issue here. Gene Krupa put that voice into my life and it took on a more and more prominent role.

I know my dad likes Anita O’Day, but I don’t think he really knows why I like her so much. He probably thinks it has to do with my love for jazz, but it doesn’t. Well, it does, because she was one of the greatest, but as you have read by now, the background is a completely different one.

Still today many people might consider it odd for a kid in the 70s to fall in love with swing music, next to all the other stuff he was listening to, but I did. I loved the big bands of the 30s and 40s and I could easily whip them on after a 14-minute extravaganza that Keith Emerson squeezed out of his keyboard park. I put on Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Harry James and Gene Krupa … and I got lost, literally.

[Forward]

I sucked at English. Although today I would consider myself to be somewhat proficient, at the time I sucked and even needed extra help. Although it was the only subject next to music that I liked at school, I wasn’t good at that one either. The reasons lay elsewhere. But, and I still remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday, I went to the school library with the lyrics of one LP I had tried to write down (my notes were somewhat of a phonetic nature), the lyrics to every tune on Anita O’Day’s “Pick Yourself Up“, and I spent the little free time I had, breaks inbetween lessons or before I was being picked up or having to catch some bus when school was done for the day, and I sat down with a dictionary and translated every goddamn word on that LP. Every. Single. One. I don’t know how long it took me to do that, and to be quite honest, I don’t think I was that successful at it, but I managed to get the drift.

God, I loved and love that album, the album that hit the market again in 1992, released by Verve (one of the very, very few albums that I preordered the second I heard about that release). They’re all on there, many heroes of my miserable time, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Barney Kessel, Alvin Stoller, Conte Candoli, Herb Geller, Bud Shank, Georgie Auld, Jimmy Giuffre. No, they weren’t the heroes of my big band phase, but they became my heroes later on … the West Coast crowd, the people that played jazz in a way that I’ve always adored … when done right.

And that LP had Anita O’Day.

At the time, I only had (amateur) listening experience with music. I was an avid listener, but I didn’t know squat about it. But because I had heard so much so intensively, I could recognize the incredible musicianship Anita O’Day was displaying, not only on this recording, which is one of the absolute cornerstones of my collection, but on all the other Verve sessions I then started buying into. To my young ears, she sang like an instrumentalist would play. Because I had focused so much on drummers that I loved, I was completely bowled over by her absolutely impeccable sense of rhythm. Her interpretations of songs were both melodic and rhythmic. She could delay tones, she could push the band and she could phrase what she was singing in the way I imagined I would be playing it as a drummer, although I didn’t know squat about that either. It was all in my head, without ever having been able to put words to it. Every note she sang or the scatting she inserted were dead-on. She was not a front woman when I listened; she was a member of the band integrating herself into a whole, making music and just going with the flow. Believe me when I say that I consider her to have been one of the most effective and most musical singers of all time. I have no idea what state you have to be in to maybe fall for her music today, but my situation was one in which Anita O’Day became the singer. Every day, for weeks, months and years.

She still holds that place in my heart today and although I have never met her, seen her live or had any contact with her whatsoever, I feel I owe her tremendously.

At first, I thought about putting together this monster post, outlining her life’s story, but I don’t think that’s all that necessary. There are many other places on the Net where you can find everything and anything you ever wanted to know about her. Suffice it to say that her life had great phases and absolutely horrible ones. She was addicted to heroin for more than a decade, even went to jail for half a year because of her drug abuse, but she also shone so brightly at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 that she became a true and shining star. She put out so many superb albums on, for example, Verve, that her legacy can afford anyone endless hours of just wonderful listening experiences. Later on in her career, she recorded way past that time when most people would have quit, and a lot of it I could not develop an ear for, but in the end, all of that doesn’t really matter.

You know, in the new liner notes to “Pick Yourself Up”, Benjamin Franklin V wrote in September of 1992 that Anita O’Day did not have “the scatting ability of Ella Fitzgerald, or the emotional intensity of Billie Holiday …”. All I can say to that is, “Oh, really?” You know how much I love her two competitors, but I would like to heartily disagree. In my own little world, she had a lot more: She was the brightest voice in my darkest days, and she managed, in some way that I don’t think I can ever really put words to, to keep me sane and healthy. Today I wish that I could have told her that at some point, even if she might never have read it. But it’s too late.

So, that’s why the news that she had died threw me as much as when I heard many years ago that one of my best friends had committed suicide.

Hell, it’s not easy to explain, but I tried.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. This is the first time I’ve been on your site and I have to say you took the words right out of my mouth. Different circumstances made me withdraw into music for quite a while and I understand exactly what you mean. I think Anita would have loved to read this one. 🙂

    Reply

  2. Speaking of Anita O’Day, there is a great group on Yahoo called Billie Holiday And The Disciples Of Swing. The group features audio files of classic Jazz Vocalists. This past month they have been celebrating Girl Singer’s Month and this weeks playlist includes several unreleased perormances by Anita Here is the link to the group and the current playlist.

    Billie Holiday and the Diciples of Swing

    Reply

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