American Fingerstyle Guitarist

Billie Holiday

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia Recordings
1933-1944 Columbia/Legacy CXK 84570

As was noted in the review of Louis Armstrong in these pages last year, it’s difficult to draw a clear line between early jazz and folk music. By the time the swing era was getting rolling in the early 1930’s, the line between jazz and folk is clearer while the boundary between jazz and pop was basically non-existent. Swing was the popular music of the day; the degree to which it was also jazz depended on the band. But more than any other figure in this pivotal period in American music, Billie Holiday has had an appeal that completely transcends the style. There may be millions of people who think of themselves as Billie fans who don’t listen to Ellington, Basie, or Billie’s favorite jazzman, Lester Young. Pretty much any female vocalist who wants to be taken seriously is going to name Billie as an influence, even if that influence is undetectable to anyone else.

Billie rose to stardom from a terrible childhood marked by poverty, abandonment and sexual abuse, but she never escaped the effects, which lead her to substance abuse and a pattern of abusive relationships. It’s interesting to note that Billie’s great contemporary, Ella Fitzgerald, was also raised in poverty – she was, in fact, an orphan – but you don’t hear the pain and longing in Ella’s singing. You hear all of that, along with the effects of her self-destructive lifestyle, in Billie’s later recordings. She maintained her great ability to communicate even as her vocal quality suffered and she (and her accompanying musicians) became increasingly predictable stylistically. Some actually prefer the late recordings, and many are indeed performances of great emotional power, but for most listeners Billie was at her peak during her early years with Columbia. The label has really done a beautiful job with this reissue, beginning with the box itself, which looks like those old albums that contained six or eight 78-RPM records. The sound quality is excellent, Gary Giddons has done an outstanding job with the biographical notes and Michael Brooks’ section about the songs is well written and informative.

I was less impressed with Farrah Jasmine Griffin’s essay about Billie’s influence on contemporary writers. I doubt that Alice Walker’s work will stand the test of time as well as Billie’s; readers who disagree may enjoy the piece. Certainly it’s undeniable that Billie’s influence is huge outside the music world, and that she becomes a character in the imaginary world of writers, artists, and many others for whom she expresses their deepest feelings. I think that with women this often takes the form of intense identification, while men are likely to feel all the symptoms of falling in love, particularly the impulse to rescue and protect the beloved. Ella’s fans seem immune to this level of Billie’s appeal, and hold up their lady as superior on several counts. Both have beautiful vocal quality, though Billie’s would decline in middle age, but the pro-Ella contingent note her greater range and technique, and spectacular scatting ability. If the listener can’t hear the expressive power that sets Billie apart, there’s no way to answer these points.

It was producer John Hammond who discovered Billie singing in a supper club and arranged for her appearance on two Benny Goodman tracks in 1933. The vocals are brief but so strong that it seems a wonder that it took nearly another two years before Hammond could arrange her return to the studio, this time under the leadership of Teddy Wilson. Giddons makes an interesting case for Ethel Waters, with whom Billie had a bit of a run-in at that first session, having influenced the younger singer. Billie always named Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith as her favorites, and her debt to Louis is obvious. One influence that doesn’t get mentioned is Jimmy Rushing, but a comparison of Jimmy’s work with Bennie Moten and Billie’s early sides reveals a similarity that’s striking.

Teddy Wilson is best remembered for his association with Benny Goodman, but his place in jazz history is assured in many ways, notably as a pianist who combined the radical approach of Earl Hines with the prevailing stride style and an elegance that was completely original, and as the leader of a series of recording sessions that featured the greatest soloists of the era in informal, small-group settings. Wilson maintained that the reason he could get players like Goodman, Young, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, and so many other greats to work for scale was that they never got to play together otherwise. This was the proving ground for the young Holiday – not a series of jobs with bands of varying standards, but as vocalist on the premier all-star sessions of the time. Wilson was not even that impressed with Billie, initially, and while he was quickly converted, he seems to have been somewhat displeased by the fact that the seventeen Wilson-led sessions that featured Billie were reissued under her name over the years. But what could anyone expect? No matter how many times you’ve heard them, Billie’s performances on classics like “Georgia”, “Swing, Brother, Swing”, “A Fine Romance”, the desolate “Gloomy Sunday” or the magnificent “God Bless the Child” cut right to the core. Standards like “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Lover Man” never sounded so good, and even ditties like “Me, Myself and I” are transformed by her transcendent interpretations. How did she do it? You can listen to these performances on a technical level and they are very impressive; like Sinatra or Mildred Bailey her phrasing was subtle but perfect, and she has a nice bag of tricks that she uses judiciously, like that falling vibrato at the end of a line that might evoke a leaf fluttering to the ground. As has been noted, her greatest strength was her able to communicate, but there’s an aspect of this that’s hard to pin down. Giddons begins his piece by noting all the different moods that Billie evokes so vividly, but it is remarkable that she does this with only the subtlest of changes in her approach. She maintains a sort of cool pose throughout, which may be why she can deliver songs that are downright silly without seeming silly. Ella, by contrast, always seems earnest about what she’s saying, and if the song is foolish she doesn’t have a chance.

One really can’t discuss Billie without mentioning Lester Young, whose music in so many ways parallels hers. It was Lester who gave her the name “Lady Day”; she returned the favor with the moniker “Pres”, short for president, which, according to Billie’s thinking, meant more in America than such designations as King, Duke or Count. Like Holiday, Young had an amazing sense of time that enabled him to ignore the beat yet swing like hell. Both were masters of the art of phrasing, and while they were among the greats of their era, they were essentially modernists. There are plenty of other wonderful soloists on hand, of course. Trumpeters like Eldridge, Bunny Berrigan, and Buck Clayton, sax masters Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Chu Berry and, of course, the always-graceful Wilson all make beautiful contributions, as do dozens of others. But, with apologies to Teddy, it really is Billie Holiday’s show. No singer in the history of pop-related music has ever come close to this body of work, which must be ranked among the great artistic achievements of our age.