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Billie Holiday - Artist of the Month April 2018

Lady Day from April to May

Billie Holiday as April’s Artist of the Month

Billie Holiday endures as an icon, a tragic figure, symbol of the times. But at root of it all she was a female vocal artist of incredible power, probably the first fully-developed, credible and widely accepted jazz singer. Holiday was an unlikely revolutionary—let alone a diva, with a relatively small voice, limited range and a very subtle stage presence. What she had was a flawless improvising sense of how to re-emphasize the notes and words of a song, torquing it into a swinging, flowing variation. As one commentator observed, she “re-composes” the tunes as she sings.

Growing up in Philadelphia and Baltimore, Holiday (1915–59) overcame the most brutal circumstances of poverty. Life experience as a young Black woman in a broken family situation forced her to grow up fast and fueled the emotional power of her delivery.  What fueled and shaped Holiday’s music were the very foundations of vocal Jazz creativity: records of the blues singers popular in her youth—Ethel Waters perhaps above all—and Louis Armstrong, especially his “West End Blues”, which caught her ear on the way into adolescence. By her late teens, through the hardest times of the Great Depression, Billie Holiday had relocated with her mother to Harlem, the site of her first artistic exposure.

She sang in small clubs uptown; in some establishments she in fact would serenade customers, moving from table to table and inventing different versions of the same tune one after another, according to the producer who brought a teenage Holiday to make her first records with Benny Goodman in 1933. The breakthrough to a larger public came in 1935, through a specifically designed series of records led by pianist Teddy Wilson. For those projects Billie Holiday was cast in a lineup of talented soloists basically having a loosely planned jam session on records. In the middle of the record she would sing the song as a jazz solo. This pattern of record-making we refer to retroactively as the “Swing Song Tradition.” The concept was a hit, and Holiday was a hit, particularly on Wilson’s version “I Cried for You”, which rang the bell of the emerging juke-box industry.

These recordings continue to be prized by jazz fans, especially Billie Holiday’s intertwining on Swing Song Tradition records with her musical alter ego, tenor saxophonist Lester Young. In short order came a variation on this concept, recordings issued as “Billie Holiday and her Orchestra”. These Wilson-led and Holiday-led recordings comprise nearly all of the recorded output of Billie Holiday’s first professional decade. During that time she sang with a handful of big bands—a half-year with Count Basie and a full year with Artie Shaw were the highlights. But her artistry was better suited to nightclubs, and she was particularly at home in Greenwich Village’s Café Society, where she was a regular headliner form its opening in 1939.

High and low points of the Holiday legend are traceable to the 1940s:  While she debuted in concerts at Town Hall and Carnegie, and in the major motion picture New Orleans, her personal life was full of difficult entanglements. Experimenting with hard drugs and eventual addiction brought jail time and increasing police scrutiny and public judgment. Meanwhile, she scored big in music on a new contract to Decca Records as of 1944 that couched her voice in large-scale orchestral settings.

For the last decade of Billie Holiday’s life and career she performed mainly with trio accompaniment, on a circuit that enlarged to include concerts, festivals and Europe more than once. A highly touted (and highly embellished) autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, put her private struggles into public circulation. As the technological fidelity of recordings increased, we got an ever clearer view of a voice that had gained wisdom, poignancy and experience—in trade for the flexibility and breath support of the younger Billie Holiday. Her 1950s recordings recapped and extended earlier triumphs: The Verve family of labels revisited the style of the Swing Song Tradition records, and special projects on larger labels framed her voice again with orchestras.

Lady Day has now been gone from the scene longer than she was ever here. Merchandise keeps alive the vision of her presence; a regular stream of evocative written works— history, criticism, poetry and fiction—testify to the richness of what she symbolizes in the popular imagination. Few other Jazz musicians who were stars in their lifetimes are adored as consistently after their passing. But fundamentally we still are moved by the records you’ll hear in focus this month—the ache and cry of her voice, and the swoons and curves of the lines she laid on Jazz Age syncopation to help usher in the Swing Era.

And this cherished TV appearance:

Billie Holiday Playlist:

I Cried for You” [led by Teddy Wilson] 1935

Billie’s Blues” 1936 

Without Your Love” 1937 

Strange Fruit” 1939 

Some Other Spring”  1939

God Bless the Child” 1941 

Trav’lin’ Light” 1942 

Lover Man”, 1944 

Good Morning Heartache

Don’t Explain” 

Deep Song” [BH’s favorite], 

The Blues Are Brewin’”

Autumn in New York” 1952

"Lady in Satin" 1957


Previous 2018 Artist of the Month:

March: Eliane Elias

February: Nina Simone

January: Milton Jackson


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