Saxophonist, arranger and leader Bill Kirchner writes:
Anita O’Day’s passing reminded me of a week I spent working with her
in the summer of 1982 at the Blue Note in NYC. I was part of her backup quartet: Mike Abene, piano; Rick Laird, bass; her longtime partner John Poole, drums; and myself on saxes and flute.
As one might expect of someone with Anita’s frequently harsh life experiences, she was pretty brittle, though I got along with her well enough. She didn’t sing very many ballads, for whatever reason. On medium-to-up tempos, Poole would play nice brushes and Anita would float over them with one of the hippest, most laidback time feels I’ve ever experienced from anyone, singer or instrumentalist. Alas, when it was time for me to solo, Poole would exchange brushes for sticks, to less-than-exquisite effect. It was tough.
One night, though, Anita called “My Funny Valentine” at a slow tempo. She sang the melody and then, as we had predetermined, I soloed for a half-chorus and then paused for her to come back in. Apparently I was doing something right, because she motioned for me to finish the chorus. At that moment, I happened to look into her eyes; to my surprise, her protective shell seemed to disintegrate, revealing one very vulnerable soul.
Anita never said a word about this, but it was one of the most unforgettable moments I’ve had in music, and one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.
In her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, Ms. O’Day explored those “harsh life experiences,” sparing no one, least of all herself. Her caption on a mug shot police took following a drug bust:
Arrested for the fourth time in Kansas City, I was as angry as I look. On a previous occasion I was framed and served time. This time I was guilty and managed to get off without a trial.
If you’d prefer to remember her in more innocent days, try this clip from the early 1940s, when she became famous as Gene Krupa’s vocalist.