Sunday, December 24, 2006

Anita O'Day

Anita O'Day, the legendary jazz singer, died around Thanksgiving. I thought most of the obituaries I read and heard were rather cliched and not terribly well-informed. I don't recall a mention of her recording of "Let Me Off Uptown" with the Gene Krupa Band. This fantastic song featured a duet with the African American trumpeter Roy Eldridge. In 1941 it must have been a spectacularly daring, social convention challenging song.

Anita: Hey Joe
Roy: What d'ya mean Joe, My name's Roy
Anita: Well come here Roy and get groovy
You bin uptown?
Roy: No I ain't bin uptown but I've bin around
Anita: You mean to say you ain't bin uptown?
Roy: no I ain't bin uptown, what's uptown?

Anita: If it's pleasure you're about
And you feel like steppin' out
All you've got to shout is
Let me off uptown

If it's rhythm that you feel
Then it's nothing to conceal
Oh, you've got to spiel it
Let me off uptown

Rib joints, juke joints, hep joints
Where could a fella go to top it

If you want to pitch a ball
And you can't afford a hall
All you've got to call is
Let me off uptown
Roy: Anita, oh Anita, say I feel somethin'
Anita: Whatcha feel Roy? The heat?
Roy: No it must be that uptown rhythm
I feel like blowin'
Anita: Well blow Roy, blow.

(Roy's trumpet to finish)
There's video of the Krupa band performing this, but I couldn't find it on youtube. There is this video of "Thanks for the Boogie Ride" which also features O'Day and Eldridge.

A friend, a little older and originally from the West Coast, had emailed me about O'Day's passing. I got to thinking that O'Day played a larger role in his musical universe than mine because of a pre-rock/post aesthetic gulf. Most jazz fans who came to the music from 60's rock came for the instrumental giants starting with Coltrane and Davis and working back to Paker and Gillespie and beyond. We may have picked up on some vocalists, but we rarely became "fans." (Billie Holiday, being an exception, but as much for her tragic narrative as for her music). At least that's my impression.

David Hadju, music critic for the New Republic, has written a very perceptive article on O'Day which brings out another reason that O'Day was not fully appreciated.

O'Day did her greatest, most enduring, and most influential work while she was stoned out of her mind. More to the point, the music was not merely made possible by drugs; it was music of the drug experience, an expression of what it meant for its singer to be high. It remains potent, music of euphoria and abandon, and the fact that it derives its potency not simply from human gifts but from the submission of those gifts to narcotics is the treachery, the exhilarating and harrowing glory, of Anita O'Day's music.

Boredom was the one thing that was intolerable to O'Day. Her music was the manifesto of her devotion to kicks at all cost. Ecstatic, indulgent, risky, excessive, and volatile, it was drug music, improvised in a state of simulated euphoria and imagined immunity. To make such music was an act of fearlessness, though not of bravery. O'Day, pickled by dope, knew no fear; but it was Ella Fitzgerald, lucid as she willed impossible scat lines into being, who was brave.

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