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.


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