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The Ultimate Swinger: Anita O'Day, 1919–2006 

Wednesday, Nov 29 2006
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Anita O’Day, the Chicago-born jazz singer as pioneering, skilled and influential as her most vaunted contemporaries (Ella, Lady Day, Sarah Vaughn), died at age 87 last week following a bout with pneumonia. Tagged “the Jezebel of Jazz” and “the Hip Chick” (she actually trademarked the latter), Anita was a genius, a brat, a nonstop artist who began singing in her teens and never quit. She burned down houses with Gene Krupa (scoring a couple of million-sellers with him circa 1939), thundered with Woody Herman, spread joy with Stan Kenton. Perpetually restless, she quit every one of them, finally landing in postwar Los Angeles and establishing herself as a stylist of depth and dynamism with an illimitable capacity for improvisation that frequently placed her at the top of Downbeat’s jazz polls.

By the mid-’50s, O’Day launched a stunning series of Verve albums that presented her in a variety of settings, using everyone from Oscar Peterson’s trio to Billy May’s rampaging big band; each was a masterpiece, showcasing her untrammeled scat singing and wily, adventurous delivery. O’Day’s style relied on a cool, almost detached mood, an emphasis on melodic, hornlike phrasing and an open throat designed not to sustain intonation but to propel the vocal tone itself forward, a big push that rolled from broad, chesty depths to pristine, crystalline highs. This allowed her phrasing to assume highly evocative shading and coloration, weaving around and above both melody and meter.

O’day also shot a lot of dope, got busted regularly, did time at L.A.’s Terminal Island lockup and nearly killed herself with a 1966 OD. She got clean (but never lost her taste for hooch or weed) and plowed on, playing everywhere from the Viper Room to Carnegie Hall, right up until this year’s Indestructible album, on which the pipes were shot but the performances were as brilliant as ever. Anita O’Day? The ultimate swinger.

click to enlarge (Illustration by J.T. Steiny)
  • (Illustration by J.T. Steiny)

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A memorial service for Anita O’Day will be held at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 1 p.m.

Reach the writer at jwhiteside@laweekly.com

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