Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Lady Sings the Blues: Billie Holiday's Centenary

by Gregg Chadwick

Billie Holiday would have turned 100 today. 

John McDonough on NPR writes:

"Most artists belong to their times, but Billie Holiday, born 100 years ago Tuesday, fits in the present. In a way, she died before her time, just as the country was beginning to talk about race, drugs, feminism and misogyny — all of which converged in her life."

Still  from 1957 CBS show The Sound of Jazz, Billie Holiday and Lester Young. 
Photo courtesy the New York Public Library.

Billie Holiday changed jazz singing and popular vocals with her stylistic innovations and haunting sound. Holiday's vocal style pioneered new ways of manipulating phrasing and tempo. When asked to explain her singing style, Holiday said, "I don't think I'm singing. I feel like I'm playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louis Armstrong or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know."  Geoffrey Smith writes in The Telegraph that "her vocal art was the sound of her life; both were unique. She transformed jazz singing with a style so natural and spontaneous that its effortless genius was a constant surprise. As her one-time employer, bandleader Artie Shaw, put it, 'When she sang something, it came alive. That’s what jazz is about.'” 

Many of the songs that Holiday co-wrote became jazz standards, notably God Bless the Child, Don’t Explain, Fine and Mellow, and Lady Sings the Blues. With her passionate interpretations, Holiday, arguably, turned  the songs Easy Living, and Good Morning Heartache into her own material. Most of all, Strange Fruit, first recorded by Holiday in 1939, is inseparable from Holiday's artistic legacy.

Holiday's life story often threatens to overshadow her art. I encourage you on her centenary to listen deeply to her soulful cries for love, equality, and justice. 

Billie Holiday
(1915 – 1959)
American jazz singer and songwriter

William Gottlieb/Getty Images

William Gottlieb took what may well be the most reproduced image of Billie Holiday at a gig
in 1948. In his book, The Golden Age of Jazz, Gottlieb writes about Billie and his photo:

"In 1948, Billie Holiday was at her peak, musically and physically....Her incomparable voice, instead of having declined from lack of use, had retained its rich but bittersweet tone. If anything, it had become more wrenching than ever.
Unable to work nightclubs in New York City because of police restrictions on performers with criminal records, she marked time until some well-financed fans arranged a concert for her in Carnegie Hall (which was not subject to nightclub limitations). Her appearance was a sold-out triumph. Eventually, she was able to resume club dates. It was at one of them that I took a photograph often cited as the most widely used picture ever taken of a jazz person. Whether or not so, I believe it captured the beauty of her face and the anguish of her voice."

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