Billie Holiday (photo: Not credited)
Like many young middle-class Jewish boys I was enchanted by jazz singer Billie Holiday and appropriately disillusioned by her indelible anthem of distress and despair,Strange Fruit, at an early age. Though admittedly, my sequestration in the Chicago’s 50th Ward (appropriately known a the Golden Ghetto) would gainsay any contact with ‘race’ music .Or at least make it unlikely. On the other hand, I began reading downbeat, the authoritative jazz magazine, as an adolescent. Ms. Holiday was more to my taste than the obvious blandness of Perry Como , Pat Boone ,Doris Day and Julie Andrews.
Also at an early age, I found the seemingly profound observation (or at least considered profound by those who utter it ) “Everything happens for a reason”, how shall I put it, poppycock. Now, all this personal history not with standing, I am moved to contemplate Billy Holiday in the wake of , in the context of the rash of police violence bestowed upon black American men and boys.
John Szwed weighs in with*Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth *. the first new biography of the legendary and famously troubled singer since Stuart Nicholson’s 1997 Billie Holiday**
Billie Holiday by Stuart Nicholson
Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth:
by John Szwed
In addition to the new biography two very talented singers, Cassandra Wilson and Jose James have released all Holiday recordings
Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday by
Nostalgia by Annie Lennox
Irrepressible chanteuse Annie Lennox who can sing with the best of them, has a version of Strange Fruit on Nostalgia, her latest recording and here she opines on the song’s significance.
Years after I had discovered Ms.Holiday, I came across a poem by Frank O’Hara
p style=”text-align:center;”>The Day Lady Died BY FRANK O’HARA
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
When Billie Holiday stepped into Columbia’s studios in November 1933, it marked the beginning of what is arguably the most remarkable and influential career in ?twentieth-century popular music. Her voice weathered countless shifts in public taste, and new reincarnations of her continue to arrive, most recently in the form of singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele.
Most of the writing on Holiday has focused on the tragic details of her life—her prostitution at the age of fourteen, her heroin addiction and alcoholism, her series of abusive relationships—or tried to correct the many fabrications of her autobiography. But now, Billie Holiday stays close to the music, to her performance style, and to the self she created and put into print, on record and on stage.
Drawing on a vast amount of new material that has surfaced in the last decade, critically acclaimed jazz writer John Szwed considers how her life inflected her art, her influences, her uncanny voice and rhythmic genius, a number of her signature songs, and her legacy.
* *Basing his sensitive, perceptive biography on interviews with those who knew the great jazz singer (1915-1959) and on extensive research in court records, police files and newspaper accounts, Nicholson (Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz) chronicles Holiday’s tragic life. Raised in speakeasies and brothels, she saw singing as a way out of a tawdry world, but her promising beginning was soon sidetracked by addiction to alcohol, drugs and abusive men. By the time she was 23, her brilliant career began to go downhill, and it would later be seriously marred by arrests and jail terms for narcotics possession. Insecure and abnormally dependent on others, Holiday always put herself at the mercy of self-serving people, and she died lonely, depressed and virtually penniless, a victim of her own self-destructiveness and the many people who had exploited her. Stressing throughout his book the interaction between Holiday’s life and her art, Nicholson laments that her image eventually overshadowed her music. He successfully portrays both the genius and the tragedy of the legendary Lady Day.(From Publisher’s Weekly)