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Book Review

With Billie

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With Billie
Julia Blackburn
Pantheon Press
2005
ISBN: 0-375-40610-7
354 pages

The story behind this portrait of Billie Holiday is a compelling and tragic one. More than 30 years ago, a woman named Linda Kuehl set out to write a biography of Holiday. She conducted over 150 interviews with friends and acquaintances of the singer, but despite years of toil and frustration, she was unable to complete a publishable book. In 1979, after leaving a Count Basie concert in Washington, DC, Kuehl committed suicide by jumping out a hotel window.

Years later, author Julia Blackburn was given access to Kuehl's tapes and notes and used them as the main source for this intriguing new look at Billie Holiday. The result is more than a simple retelling of what is already one of the best known and most bittersweet lives in jazz.

It's a literary documentary that artfully weaves together reminiscences by dozens of those who knew her to provide an intimate picture of Holiday the artist as well as Holiday the person.

What's most refreshing and revealing here is that alongside anecdotes from musicians like Jimmy Rowles, Bobby Tucker and Melba Liston are remembrances by a motley collection of people outside the jazz world - childhood friends from Baltimore, neighbors from New York, fellow junkies, even a police officer who arrested Holiday on a narcotics rap in 1947.

It's their recollections of this brave and determined, if deeply troubled, woman that make this book such a valuable contribution to the Billie Holiday literature. It's a shame that Linda Kuehl is not around to see that all her hard work finally paid off.

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