Billie Holiday Fifty Years Later: A Tribute and Reassessment
The 1972 film with Diana Ross in the Billie Holiday role, Lady Sings the Blues, documented, albeit in the sensationalized, glamorized fashion of Hollywood biopics, the tragedy of her deterioration from the effects of alcohol and heroin addiction as well as her troubled relations with the men in her life. A late classic photograph of her sitting wanly in front of a studio microphone with a glass of liquor in her hand contrasts sharply with one taken less than 10 years earlier at the Cafe Society, glowing like a rising star. Nevertheless, and despite the weakening of her voice, her last recordings (for example,Lady in Satin and Songs for Distingue Lovers) for many of today's listeners possess even greater depth of feeling than her earlier ones and, along with her work on Columbia and Commodore in the '30s and 40s, have become classics of recorded music. Various "spins" have been put on her rapid decline, whether as a fallen angel, a woman defeated by circumstances, or a manifestation of the sorrow which she poured into poignant ballads like "Good Morning Heartache" and "Some Other Spring." The hard truth is that she was a victim of the same drug and alcohol dependence that took down Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, and a list that could seemingly go on forever. Being a once vibrant and beautiful woman in the public spotlight, she was more stigmatized by her addiction than were the men. And her arrest for possession, even as she was dying on a hospital bed, further emphasized the sensational at the expense of her art. Unfortunately, it still negatively slants our perception of her in a way that clouds our understanding of her music.
Holiday's depth of emotion and her abhorrence of racism were nowhere more manifest than in her rendition of "Strange Fruit," the song by Albert Meeropol that stunningly documented the horrific lynchings of African- Americans by the Ku Klux Klan and other racists in the South in the first decades of the twentieth century. The song, and certainly Holiday's recording of it, played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement by bringing such atrocities into public awareness. Her audiences, and sometimes Holiday herself, were moved to tears when she sang it. That song, and her own "God Bless the Child," showed how conscious she was of social issues and the problems of a segregated society that directly impacted many jazz musicians through segregated clubs and facilities, personal humiliations, and refusals of performing rights in New York nightclubs. Indeed, everything she sangeven the most familiar numbers from the American Songbook of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porterseemed to come right out of her own personal experience. As Charlie Parker once said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn."
What was it about Billie Holiday's singing that made her one for the ages? Classical composer Ned Rorem, who says that his song cycles were influenced by her, pointed out the aesthetic simplicity of her style- she never wasted a note, and there was nothing redundant in her singing. Her sense of timing, her awareness of where she was in a tune, and her ability to lay back on the beat without losing the swing, and perhaps most importantly, the range and depth of emotions that she expressed were all innovative for her era, and remain unequaled to this day. Jazz vocalists since Holiday have all learned from her, and have gone well beyond her in vocal ability, complexity, and sophistication. But if you listen to almost any of her recordingsdespite the technical limitations and Holiday's later personal vulnerabilitythey remain fresh as a garden after a rain shower, beautiful, glistening, as unforced and natural as fruit on the vine, or a blossoming gardenia. It's doubtful few have equaled her accomplishment. It's certain that no one has been able to exceed the interpretive power of her singing.
Memorial by AP Photo/Rob Carr