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O'day Still In Tune And Demand

August 28, 1987|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

ENCINITAS — When Anita O'Day accompanied Woody Herman's big band on a two-week swing through Europe last May, the fact that the great bandleader himself was absent due to illness didn't dim audience enthusiasm nearly as much as the veteran jazz singer had feared.

"As soon as we walked out on stage at each concert we played, we told everybody, 'Woody's not with us, but here are the tunes,' " O'Day recalled. "And wouldn't you know it, the people screamed just the same.

"Nothing seemed to matter to them, except the music itself. That's what people remember, more than the names."

Indeed. At a time when many of the big bands of the 1930s, '40s and '50s are suddenly finding themselves leaderless, their music is enjoying a dramatic resurgence in popularity throughout the world.

And as one of the greatest vocal interpreters of that music still performing today, O'Day, 67, is as much in demand on the concert trail now as she was a generation ago, when she scored hit after hit with her versions of such Swing Era classics as "I Can't Get Started," "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" and "Body and Soul."

"Five years ago, I thought it was corny to go back and sing all the old stuff," said O'Day, whose appearances tonight and Saturday at the Bella Via nightclub in Cardiff closes the club's monthlong "Tribute to the Women of Jazz and Blues" series.

"But now, from the reactions I've been getting, I think it's great," she said. "It's all coming back."

It certainly is. In the United States alone, more than 200 radio stations with "nostalgia" formats play nothing but Swing Era music. And surviving big bands once fronted by the likes of such deceased giants as Count Basie, Buddy Rich and Benny Goodman regularly play to packed houses whenever they go on tour, both here and abroad.

O'Day's own touring schedule keeps her on the road at least six months a year. In larger concert halls, she sings with big bands like those of Herman or Rich; in smaller nightclubs, such as the Bella Via, she's backed by a jazz quartet.

"They're both great, they both have their place, and they both give me the opportunity to improvise vocally," O'Day said. "With the big bands, however, my singing is a bit more patterned; I sing more quarter notes.

"But with the quartet, I have even more freedom to improvise, which is really the essence of jazz. In pop and country-Western, you pretty much stay with the melody while the band plays behind you.

"In jazz, though, you improvise on the chord structure and interpret the song your way. So there's the fun, you see--improvising is a game, and it's a game I've always enjoyed playing."

O'Day first learned the rules of that game in the 1940s, when she recorded and toured with the Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton big bands.

When the Swing Era drew to a close in the early 1950s, O'Day changed her tune--but not her tunes. She began working with quartets but continued to apply her improvisational talents to the same songs as before. Timeless big-band chestnuts like "Skylark" and "Her Tears Flowed Like Wine" still dominate her concert repertoire.

Over the years, critics have acclaimed O'Day as "the world's greatest jazz singer," "the world's purest jazz singer" and "the world's most natural jazz singer."

But to O'Day herself, she's merely a "survivor" with no immediate plans for retirement.

"I'm just a working girl, and as I've done all my life, I take jobs as they come," she said. "My career is all I've got--I don't have any children, and I don't have a husband, so I just hang out with my gigs."

At last count, O'Day said, she's released about 500 records--more than she has room for in the tiny mobile home she shares with her pet dog in an Orange County park.

"I've recorded so many songs that I don't even have them all," she said. "I hang on to a few, and then if somebody comes over and wants to hear one I don't have, I go out and buy it."

Her latest offering, though, is one she's particularly proud of: a live album recorded in February, 1986, at Ronnie Scott's, a jazz nightclub in London. The album was released this month, as a compact disc, on the Waltham Films label.

"In the past, I've put out records, cassettes, videos and even a book," O'Day said with a laugh. "But this is my first compact disc.

"How about that? I guess if you stay in this business long enough, eventually you get it all."

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