For Billie Holiday’s 100th Birthday, Tributes and New Releases
In Billie Holiday’s “I Cried for You,” recorded at Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem in 1941, time feels unimportant. She’s flooding the entire thing, doing a long yell, a game of phrasing and pitch, with words delayed and shaken and skywritten.
She sounds unbothered by the placement of the bar lines but grounded by her relationship with the song’s form and the band’s groove. (The audience knows: It is screaming.) At 26, she sounds as if she has been on this particular stage all her life, playing with the song’s possibilities, and isn’t ready to leave. “ ‘I Cried’ was my damn meat,” she wrote in her memoir, “Lady Sings the Blues.” The song connects backward to Louis Armstrong’s phrasing and silences and Bessie Smith’s volcanic projection; it connects forward to purposeful, idiosyncratic, brash or subtle or sideways vocal phrasers in the jazz and blues aesthetic and beyond: Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Shirley Caesar, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, Erykah Badu. Holiday died in June 1959, at 44, sounding twice that age. This Tuesday she would have turned 100. This is as good a reason as any to think about her essence, and it makes her the focus of concerts and albums over the next several weeks by singers who have been doing their own thinking, as well as a critical biography by the jazz historian John Szwed, “Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth,” published this week.
Cassandra Wilson has a completely different vocal tone from Billie Holiday’s: broad and dark rather than thin and piercing. Her new record, “Coming Forth by Day” (Ojah/Legacy), presents songs that Holiday recorded, but revised beyond recognition, with a band including the guitarist Kevin Breit and the rhythm section of the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave’s band. There’s no attempt at an impersonation of Holiday’s sound, whether with a small swing band or a string orchestra. There’s a reason for this.
“She was the kind of woman who did things her way,” Ms. Wilson said recently, speaking about Holiday and often slipping into present tense. We were in Woodstock, N.Y., in the barn formerly owned by the drummer Levon Helm, where Ms. Wilson was rehearsing her band for a tour. (She will play the new music in a concert at the Apollo in Harlem next Friday, after a ceremony that will put a Holiday plaque under the marquee.) “And so I think the music has to match that. She was very defiant, very stubborn. But it’s not a rebel-without-a-cause-type stubbornness. I think deep down she feels certain inequalities in her world, she senses the balance of power, and she’s part of that energy that challenges that.”
“Coming Forth by Day” is part of the post-tragic phase in the history of the perception of Billie Holiday. It’s not enough to see her as a passive or static entity — a victim, a sufferer, a collection of vocal mannerisms. The closer you look, the less she seems stuck in her time. She sang with Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman in the 1930s, and recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939, a brave and piercing meditation on American racism. But she wasn’t widely known outside jukeboxes and jazz circles, among either black or white audiences, until the mid-’40s. In 1947 she was convicted on drug charges, spent almost a year in jail and lost her cabaret card, preventing her from performing anywhere that sold alcohol. It is generally known that she was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was looking for a splashy arrest; her conviction started more than a decade of almost constant law-enforcement surveillance.
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“Lady Sings the Blues,” written by Holiday and William Dufty — long tainted by its inaccuracies but a much better book than its reputation suggests — was candid about drug use, which gave it an underworld allure. But Mr. Szwed argues that it was meant to help restore her reputation and get her cabaret card back; she was controlling her own story. It ends on a note of rehabilitation and argues progressively for addiction to be seen as an illness. “The story of her life was made public as part of the first war against drugs,” Mr. Szwed writes. He adds, “Yet she quickly realized that it was possible for her to use some of the same media and methods to defend and redefine herself.”
Socially, Holiday lived with purpose and curiosity, hanging out with musicians, Hollywood stars, professors, female impersonators. But she also sang dark songs about sorrow and loving bad men. For decades after her death, she was understood as a doomed hero, especially through the tragic narrative of the Diana Ross movie version of “Lady Sings the Blues.” The change in that understanding has come slowly ever since, partly thanks to books that go beyond biography and look into her meaning and reception: Mr. Szwed’s, as well as others by Farah Jasmine Griffin and Robert G. O’Meally.
But it’s also partly thanks to musicians who have made records around Holiday and talked about her publicly, including Abbey Lincoln — whose thoughts about Holiday cycled through admiration, skepticism (in a 1962 interview, she called Holiday a masochist) and finally a full, complex respect — and Ms. Wilson.
Holiday was a wicked maker of sound. Many have compared her voice to a horn, but Ms. Wilson compares it to the generalized sound of a jazz ensemble of the 1930s as heard on record, flattened out through mono and single-microphone technology. (She stands by “Strange Fruit” as Holiday’s greatest accomplishment.) The pianist and educator Ran Blake, who has taught courses on Holiday’s music at New England Conservatory for many years, particularly loves her moody recordings for Decca in the mid-’40s, including “No More” and “Deep Song”; he praises the rhythmic and harmonic confidence she found through subtlety, without overemoting. “Students who try to notate ‘Deep Song,’ ” he told me in a recent conversation, “find it vastly harder than five or six bars of a Bartok piece.”
Cécile McLorin Salvant, who will perform a concert of Billie Holiday’s songs next Friday in the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, first heard Holiday through “Lady in Satin,” a divisive album released a year before her death. Her voice is striking but shaky, diminished in range and volume; the arrangements are suffused with strings.
“She sounded like an old witch,” Ms. Salvant said. Later she discovered Holiday’s earlier music, and found in the singer a genius of rhythm and of a kind of acting or storytelling. “The way she says certain words is pretty intense and crazy,” she told me, citing “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” from 1949. “The sounds she uses goes beyond words,” she explained. “She’s resigned; it’s kind of like a moan. She takes her time.”
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The baritone singer José James has also made a record inspired by Holiday, “Yesterday I Had the Blues,” which Blue Note released last week. He says that Holiday’s Verve recordings in the 1950s taught him everything he knows about phrasing and harmony in jazz singing; he singles out “I Don’t Want to Cry Anymore,” from 1955, for its sudden drop into a tonality that sounds almost Middle Eastern. (He pinpoints the spot: It’s on the line “some careless thing you would do.”)
Like Ms. Wilson, Mr. James felt a strong obligation to make his record original, and the only way to do that was for himself and his band — including the pianist Jason Moran, the bassist John Patitucci and the drummer Eric Harland — to slow down. The record has an after-hours, outside-the-clock feeling, a bit like “I Cried for You.” But he saved some of his strongest praise for “Lady in Satin,” which he compared to late Coltrane in its depth and mystery, and which scared him at first too. “At that point she couldn’t lean on anything except her spirit,” he figured. “To me, that album more than any other proves how committed she was to really expressing the sort of maze of the human heart. She was really a professor. And she was trying to figure it out for herself too. Yeah, she’s super-real. She’s somebody who I need to study with for the rest of my life. Not just as a singer, but as a person.”
Lady Day, Celebrated
CASSANDRA WILSON Next Friday at 8 p.m., Apollo Theater, 253 West 125th Street, Harlem; apollotheater.org.
CéCILE MCLORIN SALVANT Next Friday and Saturday at 7 and 9:30 p.m., Appel Room, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, 60th Street and Broadway, jazz.org.
ANDY BEY, MOLLY JOHNSON AND SARAH ELIZABETH CHARLES IN ‘CELEBRATING LADY DAY’ Next Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center; jazz.org.
‘QUEEN ESTHER SINGS BILLIE HOLIDAY: THE RARE SIDES’Tuesdays, April 14, 21 and 28 from 6 to 11 p.m., Minton’s, 206 West 118th Street, Harlem; mintonsharlem.com.
‘WHEN THE MOON TURNS GREEN: THE MYTH AND MUSIC OF BILLIE HOLIDAY’ A discussion with the writers John Szwed, Farah Jasmine Griffin and Robert G. O’Meally on April 28 at 7:30 p.m., Harlem Stage Gatehouse, 150 Convent Avenue, at 135th Street, Hamilton Heights; harlemstage.org.
JOSÉ JAMES May 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m., Harlem Stage Gatehouse; harlemstage.org.
WKCR’S BILLIE HOLIDAY CENTENNIAL FESTIVAL This radio station’s weeklong programming examines her life, career and sound from Sunday through next Friday.
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