Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday

Ken Dryden By

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Billie Holiday
Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time. With her extensive catalogue of recordings for several labels, Holiday's music has been readily accessible though relatively little live footage with audio is available.

Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday integrates film and video performances, recordings, words from her controversial autobiography (read by actress Ruby Dee) and interviews with artists who played with her (pianist Mal Waldron, trumpeter Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison), Milt Gabler (owner of Commodore and a producer at Decca), author Albert Murray and vocalists Carmen McRae and Annie Ross.

Recognized early on as a talent by impresario John Hammond, Holiday gained a foothold at the age of 17 in 1933, debuting on a Benny Goodman recording of the unpromising "Your Mother's Son- in-Law" for Columbia. In 1935, she was recording with bandleader Teddy Wilson and, by the following year, under her own name. Frequently the victim of racism, Holiday left Artie Shaw after a short time because she was omitted from some club dates due to the owners' attitudes, seething in the bus while a white female singer performed pieces associated with her. The one time she landed a movie role, it was as a lowly maid in New Orleans, with subservient demeaning lines.

There are plenty of anecdotes. McRae states that Lester Young addressed Holiday's mother as "Lady Day" and Billie appropriated the nickname. Gabler, who recorded Holiday singing the controversial ballad "Strange Fruit" (which scared Columbia executives), recalled her captivating audiences with it at Café Society Downtown. Waldron, her last accompanist, is shown playing with her late in her career, explaining how much he learned while working with her. The documentary wouldn't be complete without Billie Holiday singing "Billie's Blues" in 1957 on the television program The Sound of Jazz, marking her final reunion with Lester Young.


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