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Jezebel of Jazz

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She Was Known as the “Keith Richards” of Jazz Music. So Why Have You Never Heard of Anita O’Day?

At her peak, she was regularly mentioned in the same breath as jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. But fame requires both talent and luck, and luck never quite seemed to find Anita O’Day, so today this legend of jazz has been largely forgotten. A cabaret piece debuting at the 2014 Fringe Festival is hoping to change that.

Actress Liz Kirkman learned about O’Day from friend and fellow performer David Goldthorpe. “He was developing a show on Chet Baker and I was envious of having a vehicle that could marry both my acting and my singing skills.” Goldthorpe suggested she look at O’Day. Kirkman did, and recognized a kindred spirit to whom she could relate. She immediately asked a writer friend, Kelli Greene Caldwell, to get started on a script.

The result, titled, “The Jezebel of Jazz: Songs and Stories with Anita O’Day”, directed by Jacqueline Coats, contains scenes from O’Day’s life interspersed with performances of her most famous and moving songs. From start to finish, it is largely a solo performance by Kirkman. Earlier this year, Kirkman performed a shortened version of the play that confirmed she’d made the right choice in choosing O’Day as a subject. “I see a lot of similarities between us. Not wanting to conform to a 'typical' kind of life, a strong, stylistic voice that is not 'pretty,' and we both have big bucked front teeth! In terms of career, Anita always seemed to be missing the bus - solidly working, but not respected in the same way as her contemporaries.” Kirkman muses, “Of course, she had amazing successes and is highly respected amongst jazz musos, but the general populace never took her up in the same way as other singers.”

O’Day’s life was so filled with drama, it’s surprising we’ve heard so little about her. Kirkman laughs, “The drugs, the jail time, the mix of men, the career spanning 8 decades! Seriously, who does that?! What's not to be interested in? She's amazing.” She hopes the performances will give audiences a chance to get up close and personal with one of jazz music’s hidden talents. “Anita was a powerful storyteller. But if you ever see the documentary made on her, 'Anita O'Day - Life of a Jazz Singer' you can see the moment where her story ends and then there's a vulnerability, a weight, a truth that I don't think she spent much of her life sharing. I want to be able to share that character, the 'spinner' that she was, but also moments of that vulnerability behind the facade. And of course, her amazing arrangements, the way she played with timing and her sense of ease and truth when singing. I can't wait to share that.”

Jezebel of Jazz
2014 New Zealand Fringe Festival
Bats Theatre
22nd - 26th of February 8pm I Sunday Matinee 2pm
Full $18 I Concession/ Group $14
Tickets: www.bats.co.nz

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