New York Times Review
By GEORGE VECSEY; GEORGE VECSEY,
Published: September 27, 1981
GENE KRUPA listening to Frederick Delius records during long train rides. A tiny room at the Village Vanguard in which musicians cook heroin. A Chicago dance marathon with her truant officer in the audience.
Anita O'Day has been backstage and onstage as a major jazz singer for over four decades, most of which she remembers despite addictions to alcohol and dope and men. Enjoying a renaissance, she made five albums last year, which tied her with Willie Nelson for the most in the industry. Now she and George Eells have written a book in the tradition of the best jazz autobiographies of Mezz Mezzrow and Billie Holiday. Her book provides a fascinating travelogue through the jazz world, filled with vivid images of Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Roy Eldridge and Billie Holiday.
As a performer, Anita O'Day has an individual style based upon eighth and sixteenth notes; she goes ''la-la-la-la,'' while most of the other female singers hold quarter notes of ''laaaaa.'' She traces her inability to hold notes to the absence of her uvula, a fleshy portion of the soft palate that she lost at the age of seven when ''a careless doctor sliced it off while he was removing my tonsils.'' Hence the Anita O'Day sound.
She has tried to keep her emotional life on a remote level. Her prose is as hip as her music: ''Getting pregnant while she was single was something I don't think my mother ever got over. That was really a heavy situation in 1919. Girls killed themselves, became prostitutes or got married and carried the guilt with them all their lives. Mom took the last route.''
Her childhood was scripted by Dickens with instrumentals by Parker and Getz. Her mother was remote and her father was absent, ''So I drank, got high, learned to cover up my feelings of pain beneath a hip, swinging-chick personality I'd carefully developed. When I went on stage and sang 'It's De-lovely' or 'Organ Grinder's Swing,' I got the love I craved. I didn't need anyone. For me, music equaled love.''
The absence of a family life led her to cut classes at Chicago's Senn Junior High and seek out dance marathons, where she ran into gangsters and addicts and musicians. It also gave her a smart new language, Pig Latin, and a new name, O'Day, because that was the word for ''dough,'' and she wanted to make as much as she could.
There were plenty of ''hi gh times'' for a y oung band singer. With booze and dope and band companions, she was triply buffered from calamitous reality. She and her touring musician friends barely realized World War II had begun, though there were hints: trains were harder to arrange, musicians started to disap pear and bookings were more frequent at service His next book is ''Five O'Clock Comes Early: A Young Athelete's Battle with Alcoholism,'' written with Bob Welch. bases. Radio or newspapers? No way, Jack. Through the haze, Miss O'Day recalls an isolated jazz society that has now been coopted by mass entertainment and the chemical-ingesting habits of the middle class. She presents the agonizing details of the first arrests, the prison sentence (she was a good prisoner, finding stability for the first time in her life) and the desperate life on the run of a heroin addict and her pusher-manager. She describes groping around in strange towns to find a friendly musician who would arrange a sale, the tense confrontation with police officers in a Kansas City hotel room while her manager contrives to destroy the evidence that could send her back to prison. Many of these scenes are written as tautly as in a novel.
Yet a real person was suffering. Despite the cool facade, Anita O'Day's feelings of loneliness and worthlessness were leading her to the edge. She had terrible taste in men: a mama's-boy drummer who married her but who loved his mother more; her second husband, a golf pro who strayed off the marital fairway soon after she did; various lovers from the horn and string sections; and other men who would give her drugs but not love. They were her addictions, too. Her most tender moments with a man seem to have been when her alcoholic father mustered up his dignity for an occasional visit late in his life. She recites these episodes straightforwardly -la-la-la-la. Only an overdose saved Anita O'Day. She admits it. She got scared enough in 1968 to break her habits, but she doesn't seem to have sought out an addiction-treatment clinic that could have helped her deal with the underlying conflicts. There is a hopeful episode near the end of the book in which she dumps a young creep who has used herand probably stolen her valuable musical arrangements. She leaves himas coolly as she sings, by simply driving away in a taxi.
This is a woman who badly needs to scream. In ''High Times Hard Times,'' Anita O'Day is at her best observing jazz and its stars, including herself. Sometimes the reader has no idea what she felt at a particular time, or how she looked and sounded. There is still that facade of coolness, but maybe writing this compelling book has provided a quarternote of catharsis.