Billie Holiday Fifty Years Later: A Tribute and Reassessment

Victor L. Schermer By

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Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular music... —Frank Sinatra
Fifty years ago, on July 17, 1959, Billie Holiday died an untimely death at age 44 in a New York hospital from complications of drug and alcohol dependency. Now, half a century after her passing, it is an appropriate hommage to reflect once again on her legacy as a singer, an African American woman, a victim— of a traumatic childhood, spousal abuse, and substance dependence—and a powerful creative force for the times she lived in. Though less of a "pop star" (and much more of a true artist) than the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday is equally an icon of American music, and her legacy is timeless.

Holiday almost disingenuously re-shaped American popular and jazz singing, and in so doing she contributed to the transition from swing to modern jazz, from big bands to the small group formats that have dominated the jazz scene ever since. I say "disingenuous" because she came up and learned music by listening to records and then doing some rather thankless club and road work. She acquired her style from recordings of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and others. She was not part of any movement or trend. In spite of this, she beautifully bridged the gap between the "blues" style of African-American singers and players and the white-dominated "swing" that came into vogue around the time she began her career. If you listen to her 1930's recordings with Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and other swing musicians, you can hear her break through the formulaic rhythms and riffs of the era, going her own way with a song, yet somehow blending seamlessly with her backup musicians. It was perhaps this synergy of musical styles, in addition to her soulful beauty, that so impressed saxophonist Lester Young that he famously called her "Lady Day," and which enabled him to interweave his solos flawlessly with her singing on their priceless recordings together.

As she evolved and developed, Holiday gave rich and soulful interpretations to a wide scope of music, from the romantic to the lively and flirtatious, from the joyful to almost unbearably sad, from powerfully stated realities ("God Bless the Child"; "Strange Fruit") to everyday standards ("I Wished on the Moon"; "A Foggy Day"; "No Greater Love"). At her peak, she was beautiful in appearance, a true diva wearing a gardenia in her hair, and captivating an audience with her expressive voice. In 1939, the young Frank Sinatra went to hear her perform at the Uptown House (the same year she opened at Cafe Society in Greenwich Village). Sinatra was entranced: "Standing under a spotlight in a 52nd Street jazz spot, I was dazzled by her soft, breathtaking beauty." Later, a year before she died, in an interview with Melody Maker, Sinatra opined, "Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular music in the last 20 years. With a few exceptions, every major pop singer in the United States during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius." Coming from "The Chairman of the Board," this is quite a testimony to the extraordinary impact of an African-American woman who pulled herself up by the bootstraps from a deeply disrupted family life in a segregated society. If much later, a black disc jockey-jazz producer by the name of Sid McCoy was able to dub Sinatra as crooner the "Master Story-Teller," it was, above all, Billie Holiday who made such a designation possible.

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 sang—even the most familiar numbers from the American Songbook of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter—seemed 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 recordings—despite the technical limitations and Holiday's later personal vulnerability—they 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.

Photo Credit

Memorial by AP Photo/Rob Carr

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