But Beautiful: My Life with Billie Holiday

Lara Downes By

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Every Saturday morning, when I was a little girl, my sisters and I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for what we called "Saturday Classes": piano lessons, theory, music history—serious classical music training for serious little musicians. Saturday afternoons, when we got home, we had a ritual. We'd get out our "dress-up" from the vintage steamer trunk that housed a collection of my mother's 1960's party dresses and my grandmother's furs, go through my parents' record collection—The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Charles Aznavour, Nat "King" Cole, Billie Holiday—and dance around the living room. The Billie Holiday records stopped me in my tracks. I was enthralled by "Lady Day," her dark eyes shaded by a white gardenia, her world-worn voice, and by what I knew even then to be the totally, startlingly distinctive qualities of mood and phrasing, line and color that she brought to even the simplest tune.

In my diary, the year I was eight, I made a careful list in perfect cursive of all my favorite things. My favorite song: Billie Holiday—"I Cover the Waterfront"; such a sad song, about watching and waiting for a love that's gone. That year was the last year of my father's long, slow dying. When he was gone, I spent foggy afternoons at the window, looking out over the San Francisco Bay, waiting for the sadness to lift. I pulled out the old records at night. I cover the waterfront, Billie sang, I'm watching the sea, Will the one I love be coming back to me?

My father was born in Harlem, and grew up just steps from the legendary clubs where jazz blossomed in its golden age. The Apollo, Lenox Lounge, Minton's—clubs where Billie Holiday was singing during the years of his childhood. He loved jazz. In my earliest memories he is listening to records, the long length of him stretched out in the Eames chair in our living room—Billie Holiday, Ellington, Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Glenn Gould's Bach, which is its own kind of bebop too. In the end, he left us the memories and the records.

My sisters and I buried our loss in our music. My mother took us to Europe, where we lived in the great capitals and studied at the great conservatories with the legendary artists of a quickly vanishing generation. It was a very different life, surely, than the one my father had imagined for us. I studied Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms and Liszt, with teachers who could trace their own musical lineage only a few degrees of separation back to the source. American culture was something far away, accessed through overdubbed TV re-runs, the occasional jar of peanut butter from an army base commissary, and the cheap East Bloc bootleg jazz CDs we bought at open-air markets.

My sisters and I were growing up. I had my first love affairs, with Italian and French and Austrian boys. I spent one impossibly cold winter in Vienna practicing Schumann all day and listening to Billie Holiday records all night, missing a boy who was an ocean away. Schumann and Lady Day both knew a thing or two about heartache. I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you, she sang.

Ten years later, I moved back to the States and left my family across the ocean. I made my way, very alone, through the unknown landscape of the New York music world. Nothing I'd accomplished abroad—the competition wins, the concerts—none of it mattered. I was starting over, and it was hard. There were moments of despair and defeat. I practiced Ravel and Liszt all day in a windowless New York sublet, and listened to Billie Holiday records at night. Beautiful to take a chance, she sang. I found new courage and took some chances, and had some astonishing luck—a competition win, a Carnegie Hall debut recital, a recording contract. 

I was hungry for American music, for a reconnection with what was, after all, home. I started listening to everything, obsessively: all the American pop music I'd missed in a decade abroad. I started playing music by Copland, and Roy Harris, Gershwin, Bernstein, Ellington. There was something about myself that I needed to find in a musical tradition "beyond category," as Ellington put it—a musical sea made of waves of immigration and tides of change. The distinct sound of American music, from the concert halls to the clubs, spoke to me because it is everything we are, coming from so many different places and people.


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