Monday, July 16, 2012

Anita O'Day in depth Part 1

This is the first of a few posts in which I will focus on Anita O'Day. Her relevance to drummers was first discussed in my April 5, 2010 post titled Anita O'Day: Jezebel of Jazz & Drummer's Vocalist.

In this post I'll start with her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times

Although this book has acquired a reputation for frankness and sordid details, it is much more. For one thing, it's an oral history of swing and jazz as seen from Anita's perspective as a big band 'canary' who embraced bebop and smaller jazz ensembles that emerged from that.

What I most love about the book is despite it being a collaboration with George Eells, Anita's voice shines through in every sentence. Most autobiographies that include a collaborator turn out to be ghost written fluff pieces. Not so this one. If you have ever heard Anita speak then will you have no doubt that the words on the pages are her own. While she pulls no punches when it comes to herself - taking responsibility without apology for her own actions - she is kind to the point of being generous when it comes to others who played a significant enough role in her life to merit mention in the book. I am sorry to say that there are those who were not as kind or generous when remembering Anita, such as Buddy Bregman. I am sure his comments were made through jealousy and what seems to be an unwarranted high self opinion. Perhaps he cannot get his head around the fact that Anita still attracts avid fans and probably will continue to do so, while he has been relegated to a footnote at best in my opinion. I certainly would have never heard of him had I not been Anita's fan. He did appear in her video biography, Anita O'Day - Life of a Jazz Singer, and in what I consider to be a two-faced, cowardly manner did not slam her. And if I am coming across as more than slightly bitter about that I am. I cannot abide assholes and Bregman's comments places him within my personal definition of one.

Back to Anita: another thing I love is how her story adds another dimension to the listening experience. For example, while I thoroughly enjoy listening to Anita O'Day Live at Mr. Kelly's:

That experience is enchanced by the back story of how she brought in Joe Masters, the pianist, from Boston because she was impressed with his backing a few months prior at a New York date. After the Mr. Kelly's performance she and Masters had a fling that lasted until he got out of control and - believe it or not - John Poole, the drummer, got a less than savory acquaintance to drive Masters to the airport, put a gun to his head and convince him to board the red eye for Boston! Or her comments regarding the clashes she had with Billy May when recording Swings Cole Porter and Swings Rogers and Hart. While those details do not change the music itself, they do add a delicious spice to the listening experience - for me at least.

I'll admit that one of my primary reasons for buying the book was to get even more details about John Poole who was her drummer for over three decades. While I am one of Anita's most avid fans, Poole is one of my main influences as a drummer. The details were scant. I did learn a lot about her first husband, Don Carter, who I knew was a drummer but had no idea just how revered he was by other musicians including Gene Krupa. I also knew that Don taught her a bit about drumming, which shows in her impeccable sense of timing and rhythmic approach to singing, but did not know that he also taught her how to read music and a lot about theory.

Anita weaves in personal aspects of her life with anecdotes and impressions of major musicians with whom she worked or performed. The latter is almost in the form of an oral history. Moreover, she was an astute observer whose insights reflect a highly intelligent mind. For example, her personal assessment of the music industry in the early 1950s is spot on. Swing was dead, bebop was not winning audiences and everyone was seeking the next big thing. Of course, her observations throughout the book are of the same caliber of both relevance and astuteness.

One thing that you should know is this book essentially ends over twenty years before Anita's life and career ended, so there is a gap concerning her later life. I highly recommend augmenting this book with a video biography titled Anita O'Day - Life of a Jazz Singer. Regarding her music, there are two collections what make this book come alive: Young Anita, which is a comprehensive collection of her word from the swing era, and 8 Classic Albums, which is a set that contains some of her best work from the Verve years.

As both a fan and amateur jazz historian I found this book invaluable for the oral history and the comprehensive discography in the appendix. It is also a pleasure to read the words of someone who is open and honest, and who lived a life on her own terms. There are lessons in that as well.

In my next post I'll cover 8 Classic Albums in more depth, and will include some samples from each of the albums that comprise that set.

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