MY BOYFRIEND HAS sleep apnea, a condition which causes him to randomly stop breathing when he slumbers, until lack of oxygen jolts him awake and his respiratory system kicks in again (hopefully). He also snores very loudly. As a result, neither of us gets much rest.
Now that we're cohabitating, he finally agreed to seek treatment. This will probably entail wearing a small mask, attached to a gizmo that regulates the flow of air, in bed. But occasionally, doctors recommend surgery to correct sleep apnea. My beloved isn't so keen on that notion, however, because what they do is snip out the uvula, the piece of tissue in your throat that generates vibrato. As a semiprofessional song stylist, my man would like to retain that little fleshy bit dangling from the back of his soft palate.
I don't know if Anita O'Day snores, but she definitely doesn't use vibrato on any of the many fine jazz recordings she's made since cutting her first sides back in 1941. And that's because, according to legend, her uvula was chopped out accidentally during a tonsillectomy when she was but a lass of 7.
Now, if any of those shrieking Mariah Carey disciples on American Idol lost their uvula, they'd have to hightail it back to the Dairy Queen. That's because they're trained seals, who believe a big vibrato equals emotion. But for Miss O'Day, that fateful slip of the knife presented her with a lemons-to-lemonade situation, ultimately yielding her unmistakable style, one that helped epitomize the understated, "cool school" approach to jazz singing that flourished in the mid- and late '50s.
Just as the absence of a uvula defined what O'Day's voice would sound like, when discussing her artistry, it is sometimes easier to talk about her in terms of what she isn't. For example, Jazz Alley is billing her as a "legendary big band vocalist." I appreciate that such a tag undoubtedly attracts a particular demographic, but it's misleading. Yes, O'Day sang with both Gene Krupa's and Stan Kenton's ensembles in the 1940s, and even racked up her first hit, "Let Me Off Uptown" (for which she received a whopping $7.50 paycheck), with the former. But she was anything but a typical Girl Singer, à la Dinah Shore. The square rhythms and regimented arrangements of big-band singing stifled her. The qualities that would make O'Day legendaryher speed and rhythmic ingenuity, scatting, and melodic inventionwere not allowed to flourish until after she stopped working with Krupa in 1946.
O'DAY REALLY CAME into her own in 1955, when she joined producer Norman Granz at Verve Records and recorded This Is Anita. In between 1957 and 1963, she cut 16 LPs for the label. For neophytes who find the size of that catalog intimidating, Verve has just issued a stellar single-CD overview of her tenure there, featuring 18 classics like "Peel Me a Grape," "Ten Cents a Dance," and "Angel Eyes." But again, even this set isn't exactly the ideal representation of O'Dayand yes, I'm splitting hairsbecause it's part of what Verve is calling The Diva Series.
Anita O'Day is not, and has never been, a diva. She is a virtuoso, to be sure. She is no-nonsense, as anyone who has ever witnessed her being interviewed or read her 1981 autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, can attest. And she is utterly fearless, which is why she can take a tacky little ditty like "Tea for Two" and turn it into a display of dexterity and precision that makes the Olympic gymnastics competitions look like the sloth cage at the zoo. But she is not a diva. When other canaries wore gowns, she favored simple skirts and a band jacket and carried her own bags. And through good times and bad, she has always kept on working.
Oddly, O'Day's Diva set omits one of her signature songs, "Sweet Georgia Brown." Just as well. The best way to experience that number isn't on CD but by viewing Jazz on a Summer's Day, Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Not only is O'Day in fine voice (and, by her own admission, high as a kite), she is decked out in a stunningbut not gaudyoutfit: a black sheath with a white peplum, little white gloves, and a wide black hat trimmed in ostrich feathers. Since she had to go on at 5 on a Sunday afternoon, the singer decided to dress for a cocktail party. Like I said before: fearless. If any single moment in her career made O'Day legendary, that performance was it.
Anita O'Day may not have a uvula, but what she's got, she's got a lot of. And at 83 years old, she can still sing circles around the competition. Hell, she can probably do it in her sleep.