BILLIE HOLIDAY (1915 - 1959)
Billie Holiday is considered the world’s greatest jazz singer, impossible to imitate but hugely influential. Born into poverty, she worked as a young girl in a brothel where she heard the recordings of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and developed her own singing style. With a small voice and limited range, she could put more emotion into a song and swing it harder with her phrasing than more gifted vocalists. Her early recordings can make you weep, and as she aged prematurely from heroin addiction, alcohol, and abusive relationships, her voice lost much of its elasticity but none of its emotion.
Promoter John Hammond discovered and recorded her with Benny Goodman in 1933 and Teddy Wilson in 1935. After a brief stint with the Basie band in 1937, she toured the South with Artie Shaw’s all-white band in 1938, experiencing racism first-hand. Billie was a musician’s singer, attracting the finest instrumentalists, among them Lester Young whose style on saxophone much resembled Billie’s. They became lifelong friends—she called him “Pres,” short for “The President,” and he named her “Lady Day.”
Billie introduced many songs, among them “Easy Living” (1937), “Fine and Mellow” (1939), “God Bless the Child,” (1941) and “Lover Man” (1944) with which she had a big hit. “Good Morning Heartache”(1945) and “Don’t Explain” (1946) are also inextricably linked to her. An entire book has been written about just one song, “Strange Fruit,” which Billie introduced at Café Society in 1939. Its gruesome lyrics by Abel Meeropol are the strongest indictment of racism ever penned.
To perceive the magic that was Billie one need only watch her 1957 television appearance on The Sound of Jazz with Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan and Roy Eldridge. Her empathy with “Pres” on “Fine and Mellow” is sheer ecstasy.
© Sandra Burlingame
Courtesy of JazzStandards.com