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 of pneumonia November 23, 2006 at a convalescent hospital in West Los Angeles.
Ms. O'Day led one of the roughest lives in jazz, possibly surpassed only by her idol, Billie Holiday. Impoverished and largely abandoned in childhood, she became a marathon dancer and changed her surname from Colton to O'Day, pig Latin for "dough," slang for money. In addition to marathon dancing Ms. O’Day also became what was known in dance circles as a “taxi dancer” or one who provided herself to dance with gentlemen who had no one else to dance with at dances.
Over a five-decade career, 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. Her 1981 as-told-to autobiography was appropriately titled "High Times, Hard Times." It is a fantastic and fascinating read and look into her life and career.
However, as a jazz singer her life soared. Jazz writer Nat Hentoff declared her "the most authentically hot jazz singer of all." She remains at the top of the list of great female jazz vocalists.
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 often wore a band uniform instead of an evening gown. She was a far cry from terms like “canary" which were used to describe many female big band vocalists of the period.
Ms. O’Day was among the hippest female singers of the big-band period, lending rare emotional resonance to the relentlessly up-tempo 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.
For 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 -- surpassing even Waller's recording.
Ms. O'Day was sometimes compared to Billie Holiday, with whom she shared a tendency to project vulnerability through a calculated crack in her tone. She also was highly regarded for her scat singing.
Her signature sound created an elasticity with words, often breaking them into faster eighth and sixteenth notes instead of quarter notes, which were harder for her to sustain. This tendency was a result of a childhood tonsillectomy in which the doctor accidentally removed her uvula, the bit of flesh in the throat whose vibrations control tone.
To compensate, she would playfully stretch single-syllable words; "you" would be "you-ew-ew-ew," love would became "lah-uh-uh-uv."
"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.
Ms. O'Day was born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago on Oct 18., 1919. Her father was a printer, and her mother worked at a meat-packing plant.
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 contestants were fed in exchange for brutal entertainment.
After some singing experience, she won a positive review in Down Beat magazine while performing in a downtown Chicago club with Max Miller's band. Krupa hired her and Eldridge in 1941. The jazz writer Will Friedwald 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."
Her first million-selling record -- and best-known early recording--"Let Me Off Uptown" paired O'Day's sultry vocalizing with Eldridge's raspy voice and roaring trumpet. The 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!"
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.
The relentless performing on tour triggered a nervous breakdown, and over the next decade, she was jailed for marijuana and heroin possession.
She downplayed her arrests, writing in her autobiography that she "looked on serving my sentences as a kind of vacation. . . . Rehabilitated? Hardly. Rested? Definitely."
In 1956, she was signed by Norman Granz's Verve records, and the nearly 20 albums she put out 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' Light."
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 had a 32-year musical association with drummer John Poole, who she said introduced her to heroin.
Her vibrant appearance in the 1959 documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day," a film about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, made her an international celebrity and brought her important dates in Japan and England.
Then, in 1966, she nearly died of a heroin overdose in a bathroom in a Los Angeles office building. The experience rattled her, and she quit heroin at once. Most of her money gone, she spent the rest of her life struggling financially.
In the early 1970s, she was living in a $3-a-night hotel in Los Angeles but she revived her career over the next decade, culminating in a profile of her on the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes."
She received her first Grammy nomination in 1990 for "In a Mellow Tone" and was given an American Jazz Masters award in 1997 by the National Endowment for the Arts.
When interviewed, her voice indicated an unyielding distress and frequent irritation. She told a reporter that alcohol provided a welcome relief for her at the end of the day. In 1996, permanent alcoholic dementia was diagnosed.
She played jazz dates until late in life--with embarrassing results as her frailties overtook her talent. But she was to be honored in March 2007 as one of the "living legends" of jazz as part of the Kennedy Center's Jazz in Our Time festival.
Her marriage to drummer Don Carter, which she said was never consummated, was annulled. A marriage to 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 dogs."
She dedicated her autobiography to her dog.