BILLIE HOLIDAY: Assessing Lady Day's Art and Impact

By Bret Primack
As published by: JazzTimes

Billie Holiday had the kind of voice you never forget. No singer has ever distilled despair into such tones. She was a great natural born actress who drew on her own feelings and conveyed them with an honesty that cuts right to the quick. But like so many of her musical contemporaries of the era, she suffered from that incurable disease, being born black in America.
Early in her career while she was on the road with Count Basie, Billie was forced to blacken her face to play at the fashionable Fox Theatre in Detroit because the management felt she was too high a yellow to sing with his black band. Billie made the gig, but later acknowledged that "I had to be darkened so the show could go on in dynamic-asset Detroit. There's no damn business like show business. You have to smile to keep from throwing up."
Yet against the backdrop of an all too brief lifetime of hardship (she died at 44), Billie defined style and personality and with no technique training, created sophisticated music with such soulful diction and dramatically intense phrasing that her sound is instantly recognizable and beloved worldwide.
Some of her most inspired legacy is found on the 49 sides she made with Lester Young. Theirs was surely a musical marriage conceived in Eden. She dubbed him "Pres," he named her "Lady Day" and together, they created masterpieces like "Foolin' Myself," and "Easy Living." Pres' personal favorite was "A Sailboat in the Moonlight" in which voice and sax are truly one, perhaps the greatest recorded example of the interplay between a vocal line and an instrumental obbligato.
Their last recorded performance was the Sound Of Jazz broadcast in December of '57 where Billie, Pres, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickenson, Gerry Mulligan and Roy Eldridge did her song, "Fine and Mellow." Thankfully, this remarkable documentation of singular instrumental and improvisational individuality and inventiveness is available on video. But no matter what the medium, Billie Holiday produced a series of indelible musical images guaranteed to survive the ages. Her tragic final years were a pathetic struggle against heroin addiction, which eventually killed her, and police harassment. In New York City, because of her legal entanglements, she was unable to secure the necessary cabaret card that would enable her to sing at clubs. Yet later recordings show that, although her voice was devastated, her technique remained supreme.
For this tribute to our greatest Jazz singer, we spoke with her contemporaries and present day admirers.

Dee Dee Bridgewater

Billie sings with so much emotion that it just oozes from her voice when she sings. She had a way of taking a song and making it totally her own by the way she interpreted it and it was great. I think that's why people loved her. The other thing that made her fascinating and popular was her tragic life. For some reason human beings are fascinated with people who have tragic lives like Billie or Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. Here in Europe, there's a huge fascination with Chet Baker. I guess it's human nature, we're attracted to things that are considered to be taboo so the kind of life that she lived was kind of a taboo life. The kind of life that Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin lived, those were all kind of taboo lives.
When they're snuffed out young it makes for another myth ...
I'm sure that her tragic life affected her singing but probably in an unconscious way, probably something she wasn't even aware of. For example, if I'm feeling angry about something when I do a concert, I'm more aggressive when I sing. If I'm feeling cool and happy, my approach is much more mellow. You can hear the effects of her lifestyle in her late recordings. Her voice was very broken because of the ravages of the drugs that she had been taking and the hard life that she had been living, so that's kind of apparent.

Diane Schuur

Billie sang with great depth and great sadness. Even in the songs that are upbeat, there's a touch of what I feel to be a little sadness in her voice. But in her sadness, she's very moving and very touching.
A friend of mine read me some of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. What I found the most interesting was that she suffered drug and alcohol abuse and unfortunately, was never able to recover from that. I feel very fortunate that I'm recovered from those things and I'm very sorry that she wasn't able to do that because it robbed her of so much.
Billie seems to have been a person of great vulnerability, I think she tried to rise above a lot of things that were happening in that era, but she had a hard time of it, and I can hear that it really comes out in the music; I have a great deal of empathy for her.

Diana Krall

When I was really getting into her I was studying with Jimmy Rowles in L.A., he was her accompanist. Jimmy would tell these stories about them playing together. It wasn't an instant connection at first because I was listening to Ella and Nat but Jimmy gave me Lady in Satin, which I still have, and which is one of my desert island records. He told me they had to hold her up to do the date.
For me, she's an example of a musician's singer...her phrasing, her emotion, all the things we know and love about Billie Holiday, the vulnerability in her work. She might not have an instrument, a voice like Sarah or Ella, but it was her musicianship, her artistry which was so important.
And there's a lot of emotion involved. I know how it makes me feel when I listen to her, everything from groove to heart-wrenching ballads, she really makes you feel.

Giacomo Gates

What jazz singer doesn't listen to Billie when they're learning to sing, even male singers? Every time I sing a ballad, there's some kind of Billie Holiday influence and I think that's true for every serious Jazz singer. Like you hear Chet Baker singing, you hear Billie Holiday in Chet, you hear what we tend to believe is her personality. She's got that within thing that she just happens to let you in on when she's singing. Chet Baker had that same kind of style--that introverted, tortured, pained expression that came out.

Abbey Lincoln

I first heard her on a Victrola when I was about 14, living on a farm in Michigan. It was instant communication. I don't remember what she was singing about but the sound of her voice, it went right to me. She sounded so human.
Later on, I worked in Honolulu for two years. Billie came to town and worked at another club where they were hiring names, like Louis Armstrong and Anita O'Day. She came to the club I was working a couple of times, in between shows, just around the corner, maybe she came to get away from where she was. It was just wonderful to have her in the room...
She was awesome and special and I did not approach her and try to be her equal. She was my elder. I didn't know her. I'd heard many things about her and I didn't assume anything...
Now she's in my head. Everything I've ever heard her do. She's my greatest inspiration as a singer because she was also a writer and a great woman who was out here all by herself. She was a queen without an army and anybody to protect her.
There's one thing about Miss Holiday, she didn't do anything for money. And she didn't sell her people down the river for some change. She was true to the people. She sang about what was in her heart, not for bucks. The industry makes a lot of money in her name still, today, more than ever. They say she didn't have a big range but she had a range big enough to sing great songs, so her range must have been all right. She didn't scat, she didn't imitate a horn, she told a story in a sweet voice.
Billie was a philosopher, too, what she said was true. She sang more than just love songs, she sang about the world she lived in and that's why she's still great. God bless the child that's got their own, that's what this world is. And "Strange Fruit," about the people being lynched on the tree, a brilliant song that she had the courage to sing. She's the greatest singer of her era and her life is a great monument to this country.

Jackie Cain

One of the first Billie Holiday records I heard was "Strange Fruit." I listened to it over and over and I said to myself, is that really what I'm hearing? That those words would be on a record, it was shocking to me, and the fact that somebody would have the courage to sing that, come out and say these kinds of things...
I was used to hearing people like Jo Stafford, the records of the day, the pop stuff. Peggy Lee was prominent at that time. When I first got these Billie Holiday records I remember being totally mesmerized by her style, her sound, what I would now call soulfulness, but at that time I probably didn't even know the word.
My husband Roy Kral and I got to know her when we worked opposite her back in the '40s and '50s, when we started out with Charlie Ventura's orchestra. She was on the scene at the same time so we worked quite a few places together. We always got along very well. I liked her and she liked me. She was different at different times, sometimes she was very warm, it depended on what she was into. When she was healthy and being pretty straight she was very warm and very friendly, we got along real well. She was just a very sweet, wonderful woman, with kind of a gutsy voice, very soulful, just very down to earth.
I knew other people who also knew her well, friends of mine from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who were fans of hers, one fellow in particular who's an artist up there. She liked him so she always stayed at his house when she was in that area. One interesting story...she made out a grocery list when she was at his house because he was going to the store. He said, "do you need anything, do you want me to pick up anything for you?" And her grocery list was cigarettes, gin and dog food, which I thought was kind of funny. He had saved it and showed it to us.
Billie always used to come and see us whenever we worked anywhere and after we left Charlie Ventura we had a group of our own, a sextet--a cello player, a guitar player and of course my husband plays piano. We were working at Bop City opposite Slim Galliard and Billie came in to catch both groups.
She loved dogs. She always had a pet. One time we were working on 125th Street, at a place called the Apollo Bar, which was near to the Apollo Theatre. There was a bar in the front and a room in the back where they presented music groups. She came in there one night, I'll never forget it, because she came in with her boxer, it was just a beautiful dog. They let her come in with the dog and everything. She came in the back and she sat at a table and she had her dog sitting right next to her. It was great because I'm sure they wouldn't have allowed anyone else to bring a dog in there but they allowed her because she was Billie.

Ira Gitler

I had the good fortune to hear her in person a number of times, of course you must remember she couldn't work in the clubs. In my book Swing to Bop, I talk about taking this girl that I had a crush on in high school to hear Billie Holiday. I wasn't dating that much in high school so it was a really big deal. In those days, there were no dressing rooms in those clubs and so the performers would leave and go to club hop. Billie came by with her boxer, who was very famous. This is before she got into Chihuahuas, she had this boxer named Mister. Everybody knew the name of Billie Holiday's dog.
She came up the narrow aisle, we were sitting at a table in the middle, there were two narrow aisles on either side and banquettes, that's the way those clubs were. A few minutes after Billie had walked by us, with her gardenia glistening, my date said to me, "oh, Miss Hollywood's dog almost bit me." I guess she went to pet the dog and the dog made a move at her. I wasn't even aware of it but when she said, "Miss Hollywood's dog nearly bit me," she was finished. That was her last date.

Vanessa Rubin

When I first started listening to Jazz vocalists, to Nancy and Sarah, I was into this beautiful voice and tonality, melodic phrasing and so forth. Then when I first heard Billie, because what I first heard were her later recordings, I heard this very rough, kind of crying kind of voice. I thought it was so different. It didn't sound open and full of joy or anything. It was really, really depressing at first. Then I went back and heard about her life, her story and that's when I began to understand why she sounded that way, why she communicated the things that she did. Billie Holiday is someone that I really had to learn to appreciate.

Dianne Reeves

I was very young when I first heard her, I think I was in the tenth grade when my uncle gave me a record of hers. I didn't understand her so I didn't listen to her, I didn't like her. It wasn't until I left home and got out there on my own and started living that I started listening to her again and I just loved her because I realized that at the time, she sang her life, her experiences from life to song.
Then people would talk about her and say she was a victim of this and a victim of that, and I would think, no, this person is incredibly strong. Maybe she was victimized by society but I never looked at her and saw Billie looking at herself as a victim...
The more I've listened to her, the more I've grown to love her spirit and her strength. A lot of the things that she sang and the way that she sang them were like telling stories through songs with an incredible understanding of what she was singing.
People like Billie and Sarah, they had their unique way of singing a song. They were very in touch with their own voices, which is a very important thing. You listen to them and you get inspired by them, but you can never be them...

Sandra Reaves

I've been performing her music for 15 years in my show Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz. I do a tribute to her because she is one of my most special people of all times...
I heard Billie's music off and on because my aunt used to play all kinds of Jazz at home but I really wasn't all that interested because I came out of the doo-wop and that's where my ear was tuned to, until in 1980 my audiences began requesting certain songs when I was working at the Cotton Club. It haunted me that I really didn't know Billie so I began to seriously research the woman and her music and eventually it evolved into a show.
Studying Billie's life, it's like a person who never stops unwinding--Billie's music, legacy, the heritage that she left it just seems to never stop unwinding. I know Milt Hinton, who's worked with her, and the late Bill Dillard, who was her trumpeter. They would talk about her to me, say how sensitive she was but at the same time, she was one of the guys.
Because she had so many things haunting her from the past, well, some people said that was weakness but I found it be an underlying strength. I felt like she was really a fighter though she was not as strong as the negatives that were overtaking her. But she did try to do right. She did try to overcome but she was just weaker than the negatives around her. I feel optimistic about Billie though, that if she would have had one more chance, she would have made it.
Billie Holiday was a really heavy artist. If she was here with us today and had gotten her life clean, she would have been a hell of an actress because she would have had a story to tell. She would have been able to show you some emotions, real emotions, she wouldn't have had to concoct anything.

Dakota Staton

I wish I'd known her as a person. She seems like she would have been a nice friend and her music was so superb, her lyrics were dynamite, her stories were dynamite.
But for me, it was the repertoire, I'm a person who believes that if she had the best repertoire, she probably had the best stage presence, she probably had the best wardrobe, and it goes best all the way down, through and through, through the art form down to the tip of the toes, I think that's the type of person she must have been.
You see Billie was an entrepreneur of songs. Her repertoire far excelled the rest of the singers who were singing at that time. Her material was just fabulous, it was great. She had the best material.

Vanessa Rubin

When I first decided to pursue music as a profession, the song I broke into this business with was "God Bless the Child." I never really knew the song was closely associated with her. I just really liked it. When I did that the first time, I didn't know it was her signature song, so I got to start fresh.
All artists strive for our own voice but I think we start out emulating, in imitation and singing what we've heard other people do. Like singing over lines and repeating what other people did, that becomes your foundation to work from. Eventually, we all strive to work off of that foundation.
Women like Billie were around for a long time carrying the torch and they left a hell of a legacy for us, some big shoes for young singers to follow, to walk in...
Some of those tunes, they never did anything for me 10 years ago when I first started, like "Easy Living." But now, I'm starting to really do something with the songs and I believe that a lot of that has to do with maturity. Sometimes lyrics don't connect with you because you haven't lived enough life to be able to know what the song is talking about, or do it with some conviction. You don't have enough experience to bring to the lyrics to give it shape and form. It comes so much more natural when you've actually lived these experiences.

Walter Bishop, Jr.

When I was playing with Charlie Parker and we were doing the Bird and Strings thing, we had a gig in Pittsburgh. I came in from New York myself to make the gig and when I got there and saw Bird, the first thing he said to me was, "I know you brought some stuff with you." We were both addicts at the time. I said to Bird, "I thought you had some stuff." Anyway, neither of us had any stuff, which spells big trouble when you're on the road in a strange town.
We read in the paper where Billie Holiday was also appearing in town. Bird saw that and he said, "oh, Lady's got some shit, let's go over there." We found out where she was staying. So we went over to the Fort Pitt Hotel and I stood back and watched these two giant behemoths embrace, there was such love between them. In fact, I was awed seeing Billie Holiday and Bird embrace like that. We made some small talk and then Billie said, "Bird, you got some stuff, right?" Bird said, "No, we came over here because we thought you had some stuff." So when the deal went down and neither party had any dope, the silence was deafening. I said to myself, where is the love?
But Billie was more than a singer, she was a musician using her voice as an instrument and so her peers, other musicians, loved her. She got some of her phrasing from Louis Armstrong and gave it her unique vocal touch. And the way she slurred things like Pres, it was just great. That was a classic combination, her and Pres. And of course musicians loved to play with her because it was like playing with another musician as opposed to a musician playing with a singer. Now in the black community, she was accorded the love and respect she deserved, during her lifetime.

Jimmy Rowles

It was extremely enjoyable to work as her accompanist because of the way she phrased everything. She really told a story. She didn't like a whole stream of notes behind her. If a guy was a real busy piano player, she didn't like that. She just wanted you to comp, that's all. She was the one they were listening to, it's not a piano solo. So many people who back a singer do that, they overdo it.
She taught me a lot about phrasing. I learned a lot from her. She'd tear your heart out. So many musicians play songs their entire lives and haven't the slightest idea what the lyrics mean. That marriage of the lyric and the song, if the lyric is good, the marriage is a good marriage and you've really got something. It inspires you to play, especially if you got someone who knows how to interpret that song like no one else. There wasn't anybody in her day who could touch her. And they got all these singers around today, there isn't a one of them who can compare to Lady Day and you know it. And there isn't anybody who can touch Sarah Vaughan either.
And on top of everything else, Lady Day, until she became so undernourished, anemic and everything, she was a beautiful girl. When I first met her in the '40s, she was very, very beautiful. But she was a tough cookie too.

Sandra Reeves

Let me tell you something else, I've performed all over the world and with all the things that she suffered, The Lady was able to sing the song in such a way that people still scream out when you hit a Billie Holiday tune, even in your worst voice. If you sing something of Billie Holiday, every country that I've been in, something of The Lady, people of every age, every type of person, they respond. Even kids, they don't relate to the original Billie but they certainly remember the Lady Day that Diana Ross portrayed.
In fact, a lot of young kids today think that movie was the Lady Day and I have to say, "baby, you really need to go and listen to the original. You think you've seen or heard something, you really need to go find Billie Holiday and listen to that sinewy voice, the whine of a violin, the sorrowness of her." It seems like you can feel a weeping willow tree in her stature, the way she hung her head as she sung a song, the way her eyes rolled up and around as she reached for that emotion, that little slanted smile she had when her musicians were playing the right music for her. Those are the things I see and I feel when I think of Billie Holiday.

Walter Bishop, Jr.

I have mixed emotions about the movie they did, Lady Sings the Blues. I know it was mostly fabrication but I loved seeing her depicted on the big screen, documented, and I think Diana Ross did a hell of a job because as the picture wore on, she sounded more and more like Billie, even though it was out of her genre. Diana Ross is certainly not a Jazz singer.
So I dug the film even though a lot of people panned it, because I think they certainly did a much better job depicting Billie than they did with Bird. You have to look at the broader spectrum it put her in, because when she hit the big screen, a lot more people started checking her out and going and buying her records, that was the big thing for the movie. I don't think it worked out that way for Bird. His movie was such a negative portrayal that aside from other musicians, I don't think people went out and bought his records.

Jackie Cain

Roy and I eventually settled in Vegas for six years, back in the '50s, working Vegas, Reno and Tahoe, the gambling circuit. Well, at this particular time, we had been out of town and when we got back to Vegas, Billie was appearing at the Sahara Hotel. I looked in the paper and realized it was her last night at the Sahara. We were exhausted because we had just driven in from somewhere, a long trip and everything but I said to Roy, "I would really like to go and see Billie because she's closing tonight and if we don't go tonight, we won't get to see her." I hadn't seen her in five or six years. He had just driven the whole trip and he was too tired but I got in the car and went over there.
I remember the sad feeling I had looking at her because she was in this lounge in the Sahara and all the slot machines and everything are in the room in the back but there's really no partition. While you're listening to the music or performing, you can just hear the slot machines going and the crap dealers and people yelling and talking loud.
Billie was up on the stage when I walked in. She didn't look very well. I didn't realize it until later but this was a period when she was quite ill. In fact she died a couple of months later. I looked at her and she had on this beautiful chiffon dress, she looked like a Southern belle, totally out of place. She looked so very fragile and her voice was kind of weak. Of course they always keep the sound down in a place like that because they don't want to disturb the gamblers. It was so pathetic, I felt so badly for her.
But she was up there doing her thing. She didn't have much strength, it wasn't her best singing, but it was her, and I was real thrilled that I got to see her. After the end of the set she was getting off the stage and I went over to her, and I was wondering if she'd remember me because I hadn't seen her in so long. I probably looked different, I thought she probably wouldn't even remember me anymore. So she came out from under the bar and I was standing there and I walked up to her and said "Billie, do you remember me?"
She looked at me and said, "oh Jackie," she remembered me real well and put her arms around me and while she was hugging me, she whispered in my ear, "you're the first human being I've seen since I've been here." That was like a knife in the heart, I felt so bad for her...
Billie had her heyday. She did a lot of great things, but she didn't have a very happy life because she was always with the wrong man. A lot of her men abused her and stole from her and took from her. It was just so sad that she was in that situation.

Ira Gitler

She was a demi-goddess to us. I haven't heard anyone to equal her singular personality and approach to a song. I love Sarah Vaughan equally but Billie Holiday is in a separate niche.

[Previous page]