Saturday, March 09, 2019



Released in 1978, an older, wearier, wiser Anita O'Day, post-heroin, enjoying a second career in Japan. A fine document of her easy chemistry with long-time drummer John Poole (they also co-owned the record label, Emily Records). Picked this LP up in a free stack at the local oldhead used bookstore which, against all Amazon-hellworld odds, is still open noon to 8pm every day. And speaking of the neighborhood, Anita O'Day is my all-time favorite former attendee of Nicholas Senn High School, a mere 15 blocks away from Blastitude HQ (and she's got a real rogue's gallery of competitors for that honor, including William Friedkin, Harvey Korman, Harold Ramis, and Shecky Greene himself). She might be your favorite Senn alum too if you've seen her smashing outfit and stoned improvisational regality onstage at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, as indelibly captured in the film Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960, d. Bert Stern, Aram Avakian).

Even if that performance somehow doesn't do the trick, I know you'll love her early 1940s tenure with the Gene Krupa band, especially the super-fun (and for the time daringly integrated) million-selling 1942 duet with trumpeter/vocalist Roy Eldridge, "Let Me Off Uptown."

I wondered if the song was meant to be about Chicago's legendary northside entertainment district, just a couple miles south of where I type, though figured they were probably talking about the more nationally known "uptown" of Harlem, New York. Then again, c'mon... Anita grew up and learned how to be a jazz singer in Chicago's Uptown, and Krupa was from Chicago too. As luck would have it, she wrote a great memoir in the 1980s called High Times Hard Times, and it answers the question with this crucial passage featuring the song's lyricist Redd Evans (as well as good ole Senn High):

Senn Junior High had my body between 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM, but my mind was wandering the taverns of the Uptown district. In 1936, Chicago was still a toddlin' town. In addition to the big clubs and theaters in the Loop that used stars, there were a lot of funky Uptown hangouts such as the Barrel of Fun, Liberty Inn, Warm Friends, and, of course, the 5100 Club where eventually Danny Thomas was to make his name. 
         At school, the only time I felt I was living was during Friday afternoon entertainments. I was obsessed with music and Fridays I'd let it all out. The rest was zilch. The way I looked at it was I had to serve my sentence. 
        On December 18, which I thought was my sixteenth birthday, I split again. That night I sneaked out the window of our apartment, as I'd been doing since the truant officer got me, went over to the 5100 Club where a lot of kids hung out on the street, listening to Fletcher Henderson's brother Horace blow. Horace had a terrific band. On this particular night, I fell into conversation with the cat named Redd Evans, who played the sweetpotato (ocarina) with Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights. He and I got to singing and I really felt alive, as if I was where the action was at last. 
        "I like riffs, don't you?" Redd asked. 
        "Riffs? What are they?" 
        He sang one, then explained that it was a repeated musical phrase. I really dug that. Riffs became the center of my world. I went around working out riffs all the time. So Redd had an influence on me from the first time we met.

Hey Anita, guess what? I like riffs too. There's no doubt that Anita knows and feels and gets music, with passages to that effect throughout, like this nice one about Charlie Parker:

I idolized Charlie Parker because I would say he was one of the great jazz geniuses of all time. He changed the whole face of the music. What I mean is that when Louis Armstrong became popular, all trumpet players had to change their styles. Not the rest of the band. But when Charlie Parker became popular with his be-bop tunes, everybody had to change his style -- the drummer, the piano player, the singer, whoever. 

There's also this excellent episode of the NPR program Jazz Profiles that spans her entire career, with lots of great interviews and musical selections. I love it when John Poole emphatically points out that she wrote a song called "Rock and Roll Blues," and the year she wrote it was 1947, long before Elvis Presley showed up. (Maybe he's so emphatic about the year because a recording of the song didn't seem to come out until 1952.) Could it be that the swing era is the actual birth of rock'n'roll? I did once say on twitter that Gene Krupa was the first rock star....


PHOTO: Dolman. LOCATION: Raising Cane's #352, 6568 N. Sheridan Rd., Chicago IL

Finally wrapping up this Anita O'Day piece, to the point where I'm even filing the LP, and I thought it was notable that it was right next to The Visitor by Jim O'Rourke. He didn't go to Senn, but he is also from Chicago, and not all that far away. "I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago, near the airport, near the beginning of the suburbs," is what he told Popwatch magazine (issue #8, Winter-Spring 1997), and I swear I remember him saying, in a different interview I can't find, something about going to the Goldblatt's store in Anita's old haunt Uptown to buy records when he was a kid. It's an impressive historic building, built in 1915. Anita would've also known it as Goldblatt's, as they were in the building for a very long time, from 1931 until they finally closed down in 1998, possibly an early victim of the internet. It became a Border's Book Store in 2004, which is how I knew the building as a Chicagoan. That store never felt quite right, and was definitely a victim of the internet when it closed in 2012. The building has been shuttered since, and even with the forces of hypergentrification that have swept into so much of Chicago, Uptown remains a relatively funky multicultural big-city music neighborhood, with shows almost every night at the Aragon, the Riviera, and the Green Mill.

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