Guest Author - Sue Sutherland-Wood
Billie Holiday never received any formal instruction as a singer. Her beginning, like much of her short life was a study in tragedy and sorrow. At twelve years of age, she was already working in a brothel. Her singing at that time evolved simply as a way of earning some extra money from the customers. By 1930 she had been jailed for prostitution but after her release, she began singing in smaller clubs and venues where she caught the attention of producer and blues/jazz enthusiast John Hammond. She was just eighteen years old and beautiful.
It soon became extremely evident that Billie Holiday was not only unique, she had a natural gift; even though she often lacked the vocabulary to try and explain her own talent, to articulate exactly how she was able to interpret the music, she was clearly a genius. She viewed her own voice as an instrument – a horn specifically – and this is precisely the kind of tonality that she was capable of. Not only was she able to convey heart wrenching emotion but as well she knew instinctively how to subtly alter the weight of a syllable to best suit her purpose. Improvising was a big part of Billie’s technique and as a jazz musician she understood its significance; in fact, she claimed that she literally wasn’t capable of singing the same song, the same way more than once. Although not as well known, she was also co-wrote God Bless the Child, Lady Sings the Blues and many others.
John Hammond introduced Billie to Benny Goodman and through him came a series of other jazz friendships that would help to launch her career. She also began working with the wonderful and quirky saxophonist Lester Young. Lester Young and Billie Holiday had chemistry right from the start and it was Young who first coined the nickname of “Lady Day.” She called him “Prez” as in President. Lester Young took ‘in jokes’ to a whole new level and created his own (often extremely clever) vocabulary so that only his close friends knew what he was talking about. But in musical matters, he was Billie’s other half – anticipating and responding to her phrasing and seamlessly improvising right along with her. Billie and Lester did a number of small jazz sessions together that are considered classic sets now – The Very Thought of You or Fine and Mellow are among the best of many bests. Lester remained her closest musical colleague but sadly, to me at least, they were never involved romantically.
Billie enjoyed a great deal of musical success in her life and sang briefly both with Count Basie’s orchestra and Artie Shaw. She also broke new ground at a time when it was not yet typical for a black musician to be fronting a white band; similarly, her haunting song Strange Fruit which dealt with racism and was very controversial for the time quickly became a classic. Bizarrely, many of the people requesting this song in clubs somehow missed the underlying message.
Billie’s struggle with heroin addiction and subsequent imprisonment for possession in 1947 caused her career to halt for a while. The rest of her life was a slow and steady decline, painful to watch and her voice never recovered from the years of abuse she had put her body through. Although some people say she sang with even more emotion at this time in her life – and certainly she could still sometimes pull off some remarkable performances – the media was now more interested in watching her unravel. Billie Holiday died in 1959 at only 44.
Buy CD 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Billie Holiday from Amazon
Jazz:A History of America’s Music Geoffrey C.Ward & Ken Burns
Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues Mandel, Howard