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Anita O'Day can still command a band -- and an audience

Anita O'Day has been called the world's greatest jazz singer, the world's purest jazz singer, and the world's most natural jazz singer. What does she think about it? ``I was a `personality singer' for years before the big-band days. They called me that because I smile when I sing. They're gonna throw tomatoes, you smile and they don't throw 'em. So that was what I was.''

At her recent 50th anniversary celebration concert at Carnegie Hall, she looked and sounded better than ever. At age 65 she is a bundle of energy and originality. And what was once a hard-boiled edge has mellowed into a down-to-earth, warm-humored charm.

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The Carnegie Hall concert was a musical retrospective of her career -- from her early days in the depression-era walkathons up to the present. For the first half of the program she was accompanied by a small group (Hank Jones, piano; Jay Leonhart, bass; and manager John Poole on drums) -- a setting that she has used almost exclusively since her days with Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton. But the second half was a re-creation of those grand big-band days, with a 16-piece orchestra backing her on some of her most popular hits of the '40s and '50s: ``Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,'' ``I Can't Get Started,'' ``Boogie Blues.''

It was a rare opportunity to hear these songs -- and their great arrangements by people like Quincy Jones, Buddy Bregman, and Johnny Mandel -- live with a big band. But it wasn't just a ``nostalgia trip'' -- a rehash of old numbers. O'Day, unlike some of her contemporaries, continues to grow by leaps and bounds as an artist. She never sings anything the same way twice (she often ends a song with ``You'll never hear THAT version again!''), and even her renditions of tunes she's sung hundreds of times (``Honeysuckle Rose,'' ``Tea for Two,'' ``Lover Come Back to Me'') took on new dimensions here.

Her well-attended concert at Carnegie Hall was a relaxed affair for Miss O'Day, and one over which she demonstrated complete control. But this is nothing new. One of the remarkable things about her is that she's not just a singer -- she's a crackerjack leader. She conducts the band, directs the soloists, and listens intently to what they're playing (often with her back to the audience -- what does she care? She's there for the music!). And she does all this with faultless timing, a razor-sharp ear, and superb musicianship. She commented in an interview a few days before the concert:

``I don't want a conductor [for the big band] on stage -- this is my act. I'm the front man. I do it with a trio, with a quartet, with a sextet. Why can't I do it with a big band?''

Then she went on to tell a story of just how she does it with a big band:

``One time -- it was a while back, at an afternoon concert at Disneyland -- the leader of the band says to me, `Good afternoon, Miss O'Day.' The band is playing, I come in, and he says, `Where are your arrangements, Miss O'Day?' I said, `Arrangements? -- Oh, I don't have any.' He nearly choked. He said, `What are you gonna do?' I said, `Oh, we'll just call a couple of tunes.' And he said, `But what about the arran--' -- I said, `I tell you what. You go take a break, and I'll just do a couple of things.' He said, `Oooookaaaaay . . .' and off he goes.

``And I get on stage and start out with a blues -- you can't go wrong with a blues, right? So I'm singing the blues, and then somebody starts a solo, and I turn around to the trumpet section and I say, `Get a riff going, you want a riff?' And to the trombones, `Here's a riff -- doo dooten doo doot' -- and the thing starts to build, and it's building and building, and it's SO FUN!''

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She just cracked up with glee, remembering it. And John Poole remembered how the audience loved it: ``She got a standing ovation -- they wouldn't let her off the stage!''

Likewise at Carnegie Hall -- the audience rose to its feet and demanded an encore. Anita seemed reluctant, so John Poole fell to his knees right on stage and begged her. Naturally she obliged, and the audience got to see a replay of the Disneyland story, with Anita coaching the band and singing their parts to them on ``I'll See You in My Dreams.''

Anita O'Day has been living in Las Vegas for the past few years. She has performed at the Top of the Dunes and Vegas's jazz club, the Four Queens, but she's also traveled extensively -- Washington, Detroit, Florida, Hollywood, Seattle, San Francisco, Brazil, and Japan.

Says she, ``I get down to $58 in my account, then I gotta travel. It's good -- keeps you on your toes.''

Anita O'Day's albums, including her latest release, ``A Song for You'' (EMILY 83084), are available in most record stores or from Emily Productions, 1050 Indian River Drive No. 355, Las Vegas, Nev. 89103.

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