Lady Day

02.14.15 11:45 AM ET

The Stacks: Billie Holiday: Jazz’s Aching Songbird

Her life bore all the cliches of the jazz world: horrible childhood, meteoric rise to fame, addiction, bad love affairs. But when she opened her mouth to sing, none of that mattered.

When I first started listening to jazz I was overwhelmed. I didn't know how I'd ever be able to tell the difference between Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, didn't know how I'd ever determine the difference between John Coltrane and someone imitating Coltrane. I'm still an amateur but I can tell you this: the first performers I could identify by ear were Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. Their sound is so specific, so singular, that even to the untrained ear, they are identifiable.

We're lucky that Net Hentoff was on hand to record so much of the Jazz scene in the '50s and '60s, and here he cuts through the popular mythology that often obscures Holiday's great talent and shows us the depth of her musical gift. From Jazz Is —and reprinted here with the author's permission--please enjoy this meditation on one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced.

—Alex Belth

Dizzy Gillespie's big band, at Birdland in New York. Coming down the stairs I heard a crackling, stunning trumpet cadenza, brilliant in content as well as in its reckless virtuosity. And yet it wasn't Dizzy. I looked at the stand and there was a teenager from Philadelphia, Lee Morgan, for whom Dizzy had just opened the door to the Big Apple.

Another night at a rather sleazy but congenial Greenwich Village bar, Cafe Bohemia. Like Birdland, it was a room where musicians were always in attendance at the bar, sometimes even at the tables. And like Birdland it was a place where unknown musicians, if courage seized them, tried to initiate their reputations.

Donald Byrd, just come to the Big Apple from Detroit, first established himself at the Bohemia, playing trumpet with such quicksilver grace that, as a waitress put it one night, “My God, he's the first jazz hummingbird I've heard.”

And this night, a large young man from Florida, his alto saxophone looking like a toy against his girth, ascended the stand to sit in. He was Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. To test this uncommonly confident, even brash, young man, the leader, Oscar Pettiford, set off a tempo on I'll Remember April that might have intimidated even Art Tatum. Adderley more than survived that set and the very next day he got a call for his first record date--on Savoy. Not as a sideman, but as a leader.

Another night--and each jazz listener anywhere in the world has experienced comparable nights of sudden revelation--Sonny Stitt was playing at a club called Basin Street West in New York. The lore had it that Sonny was Charlie Parker's successor, that Bird had actually told him so. But Sonny, though technically fluent and certainly a steady swinger, had shown little of Bird's careening imagination or his ability to hurl an audience into new dimensions of feeling time and musical space.

This night Sonny Stitt was moving efficiently through a set when the rhythm section stopped--and Sonny executed a long break, lightning flashes of searing, ineluctably connected, thrusting notes that seemed to have a palpable force. The effect on the room was as if those sounds had cast a spell. All conversation stopped. Hands about to light a cigarette or reaching for a drink froze.

In jazz you never know what's coming.

In December 1957, Whitney Balliett and I were asked by CBS television producer Robert Herridge to assemble musicians for what Herridge wanted to be the most authentic hour of jazz yet seen and heard on television. One decision we came to early was that there would be a minimum of script. As John Coltrane was to tell me years later, “I really wish there were no liner notes on my albums. If the music doesn't say it, how can words say it for the music?”

We also agreed that there would be no sets. Again, it was the music--and those who made it--that told it all, visually as well as aurally. And so the studio was our set, including the cameramen. Jazz doesn't pretend. So why should we? If a cameraman were caught in another cameraman's shot, so what? It was, after all, a television show.

Furthermore, why shouldn't the musicians be as comfortable as they'd be at an after hours jam session? And so we told them to wear what was most comfortable and natural for them. Some, like Coleman Hawkins, wore their hats as they would at a recording session or when playing after hours. (Later I was severely criticized for this by a superior jazz alto saxophonist and arranger who had, however, internalized the bourgeois concept of how jazz players should look if the music were ever to be “respectable.” This black alto player was furious at the fact that the jazz musicians on this program, The Sound of Jazz, had entered people's homes throughout the country with their hats on! I never was able to persuade him that dignity is not a matter of dress but of what you do and how well you do it.)

On the program was Billie Holiday--from whom no one ever quite knew what to expect. When I first told her that we were going natural, she was bristlingly angry. “I just spent five hundred goddam dollars on a gown!” she complained. But after the first rundown on camera--so the cameramen could get some sense of what was going to be demanded of them--Billie began to enjoy the unpressured ambience of the proceedings.

As the program itself started, the musicians were seen smoking and talking with each other (when they themselves weren't playing) and Billie, wearing slacks, her hair in a ponytail, made her entrance walking merrily through the ranks of the Count Basie band, kidding some of her longtime colleagues as she ambled along.

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On this Sunday afternoon, less than two years before Billie's death, she was about to sing Fine and Mellow. Perched on a high stool she faced a semicircle of musicians who were all standing--except one, Lester Young. Prez (as Billie had nicknamed him long before) was sick. He had been so weak during the run-throughs that most of his solos during a previous segment with Basie's band had been split between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Now Prez was slumped in a chair, his eyes averted from Billie, whom he had not spoken to for some time. Once they had been very close, and I didn't know what discord had kept them estranged for so long, but throughout the rehearsals they had ignored each other.

Lady Day began to sing; and in the darkened control room the producer, the director, and the technical staff leaned forward, some of them, as the performance got underway, mumbling expletives of wonder. The song, which Billie had written, was one of the few blues in her repertory, and this time she was using it to speak not so much of trouble but rather of the bittersweet triumph of having survived--with some kicks along the way. Despite the myth that, toward the end, Lady invariably sounded like a cracked husk of what she had been years before, when she would not sing without a gardenia in her hair, that afternoon she was in full control of the tart, penetrating, sinuously swinging instrument that was her voice.

It was time for Prez's solo. Somehow he managed to stand up, and then he blew the sparest, purest blues chorus I have ever heard. Billie, smiling, nodding to the beat, looked into Prez's eyes and he into hers. She was looking back, with the gentlest of regrets, at their past. Prez was remembering, too. Whatever had blighted their relationship was forgotten in the communion of the music. Sitting in the control room I felt tears, and saw tears on the faces of most of the others there. The rest of the program was all right, but this had been its climax--the empirical soul of jazz.

Later, a woman wrote in to the television network to say how startling it had been to see on television “real people, doing something that really matters to them.”

For Billie Holiday, certainly, music mattered overwhelmingly. As jazz singer Carmen McRae, a friend of Billie's, once said to me about Lady Day: “Singing is the only place she can express herself the way she'd like to be all the time. The only time she's at ease and at rest with herself is when she sings. I mean when she can sing, not when she's under the influence of liquor or whatever she's on.”

There is a certain hyperbole to what Carmen said. I remember times with Billie in a friend's house, talking on the street, in a dressing room, when she was at reasonable ease, usually sardonic but not malicious, and hilariously accurate in her imitations of bookers and managers and record producers and other panjandrums of the industry. But it was true, I think, that Billie felt best about herself, surest about herself, when she was singing. Or, as Carmen McRae put it, when she was able to sing.

And when she was able to sing she was in charge, whether it was a big band (in her relatively early years) or a small combo or trio. Trumpeter Buck Clayton has recalled: “When she joined Count Basie, we had to rehearse because of the big band, mostly for the horns. Oh, we had places for her to come in, but that was all. She would follow Lester Young or me. All she needed to know was when to come in and when to quit. Aside from that she'd sing the way she wanted to. Nobody could ever tell her how to sing. She sang the way she felt.”

Billie survives, in sound and in memory, through her music. And yet for the public at large (many of whom know her only in distorted legend, such as in the Diana Ross movie Lady Sings the Blues), Billie is most remembered as a victim--of herself, of society. The rhythms she moved to were a junkie's beat, according to this legend. The real, more complex rhythms of her life and her music have become blurred.

So it has often been in jazz history. Legends float, bearing little relation to the specific gravity of the fabled figure being revered or voyeured. Many of those, for instance, who idealized Charlie Parker after his death knew little of him or his music, but were enchanted by their notion of this wild rebel whose insatiable independence caused “society” to “kill” him. Bird's life and music were more earthily tangled than that, just as Billie Holiday's art was much more than the extension of a ghostly victim.

Not that Billie was not a victim and was not hooked on drugs for much of the last eighteen years of her life. And she did come up hard, although she was all too vulnerable inside until the day she died. Her first hurt was her abandonment by her guitarist-father, Clarence Holiday, who always considered Billie an accident. (“She was just something I stole when I was fifteen,” he said years later to another musician.)

Eleanora Fagan (her mother's name) or Holiday changed her name to Billie when she was young because Eleanora was “too damn long for anyone to say.” She started scrubbing white folks' steps in Baltimore when she was six. She also ran errands for the madam and the other professionals in a whorehouse in return for being allowed to listen to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records on the house Victrola; was almost raped at ten and put away in a Catholic institution as punishment, presumably for “enticement”; and left school at thirteen, having gone only as far as fifth grade.

“Up South” in New York (as Malcolm X characterized being black in the North), Billie worked briefly as a maid, a role she despised both then and in her one Hollywood picture, New Orleans, with Louis Armstrong. By the age of fifteen Billie was turning tricks in a brothel on 141st Street. (“I had someone doing my laundry,” she notes in her book, Lady Sings the Blues, written with William Dufty). She was soon in jail again for having refused to accept a too-rugged customer who happened to be somewhat of a power in Harlem.

Because of that experience, and for reasons of pride, Billie stopped turning tricks and began to sing in Harlem clubs. Her reputation grew rather swiftly, in part because of the proselytizing work of John Hammond, the Magellan of jazz (his finds having ranged over forty years from Count Basie and Charlie Christian to Bob Dylan).

“It was around 1933,” Hammond told me, “and in a club uptown there was this chubby girl going around the tables, singing. I couldn't believe my ears. No chick I'd heard sounded like this--like an instrument, like Louis's trumpet. And the way she improvised. When those girls were working they had to sing a route which ran to twenty or thirty tables. That required an extraordinary amount of musical resourcefulness, and if you didn't have it that was clear right away. She had it.”

Hammond also remembers that, although the other girls working the tables were expected to collect their tips by lifting their dresses and using their labia to pick up the dollar bills, Billie would not. It was at that point, by the way, that she first started to be called Lady, at first derisively by her less punctilious associates. Lester Young later expanded the sobriquet to Lady Day, taking the addition from her last name.

In 1933 John Hammond persuaded Benny Goodman to use the fifteen-year-old Harlem singer on a record date, Billie's first. Many more recordings followed, including a notable series of small band sessions under Teddy Wilson's direction. The recordings helped establish Billie, though not financially. “I made over two hundred sides between 1933 and 1944,” she wrote in Lady Sings the Blues, “but I don't get a cent of royalties on any of them. They paid me twenty-five, fifty, or a top of seventy-five bucks a side, and I was glad to get it…. But royalties were still unheard of.”

Although Billie was working New York clubs fairly regularly, the monetary returns were slight from those sources, too. Consequently, she went on the road with Count Basie and then with Artie Shaw. Billie, traveling light, failed to make her fortune stringing one-nighters together, but she added to her store of experiences concerning the depth and diversity of Jim Crow in the American grain. Billie was angered and disgusted by bigotry, but her response was considerably more resilient and defiant than is apparent in the soap opera movie which purports to be about her life.

There was the time the Basie band arrived in a small Southern town which didn't even have a “colored” hotel. Quartered at the home of the local black minister, the Basie band and Billie had just finished an idiomatic but nearly indigestible dinner. One of their number, a very light-skinned member of the orchestra, had been missing from the table. On the street they saw him jauntily emerge from the best white restaurant in town. He pretended not to recognize his coworkers; and Billie, placing herself in front of him, shouted for all the town to hear: “All right for you, Peola!” (Peola, elder readers may recall, was the young Negro woman who tried to pass for white in the then-popular movie, Imitation of Life.)

Back in New York Billie became a star, as she somewhat wryly put it, after two years at Barney Josephson's Cafe Society. When she left, as she also remembered, she was still making the $75 a week at which she started. But gradually Billie's price rose, and she could have been a moderately affluent woman if she had not become involved in a series of ruinous affairs with exploitative men, and if she had not acquired a most expensive drug habit.

I have neither the qualifications nor the inclination to try to explain the specific dynamics of Billie's penchant for self-destruction; but it is germane to cite a point made by Bobby Tucker. “There's one thing about Lady Day you won't believe,” he said. “She had the most terrible inferiority complex.” Billie put it another way. Speaking of her childhood--the attempted rape; the times she had been locked up while she was still in her teens; the lack, to put it mildly, of a secure sense of family--she emphasized that those experiences had left her feeling “like a damn cripple.” And she always insisted on telling any man with whom she had a relationship of “the things that happened to me when I was a kid.”

In any case, until the end Billie had a hard time believing she was a star, even a falling star. She would be genuinely, almost ingenuously, touched when someone told her how much her singing meant to him. I do not mean she ever lost, for any length of time, her stubborn pride. Quite the contrary. Billie would hoot at such myths about her, as in the movie of Lady Sings the Blues, that without the support of one good strong man, she would have had an even untimelier end. Of all the men she knew she said, “I was as strong, if not stronger, than any of them. And when it's that way you can't blame anybody but yourself.”

Not always, but often, Billie retained her sardonic wit in the worst of times. And she also kept her sense of rage when she felt she was being victimized by forces for which she could not and would not take the blame. There was the persistent harassment of Billie, for example, by those police, federal and local, who specialize in enforcing the narcotics laws. When she once went to a private sanatorium to kick the habit, and succeeded for a time, a narcotics agent appeared there on the day she left, relentlessly keeping track of her. Some of her arrests for drug possession were legitimate; others were not; and always she had the sense of being tailed. There's more than one kind of monkey that can be on your back.

What most galled and depressed Billie was her inability to work in New York clubs for twelve years after she had served a ten-month term for drug possession at the Federal Women's Reformatory at Alderson, West Virginia. At that time anyone with a police record was refused permission to work in any New York room where liquor is sold. Billie was in show business, although she was also an artist to those of us who believe that jazz is America's classical music. And she knew, as Lenny Bruce later knew, that an entertainer exiled from New York suffers extensive career damage. As she did.

The hounds of the narcotics squads, imbued with faith in irredeemable sin, pursued Billie quite literally to her deathbed. A friend of Billie's, and of mine, Maely Dufty, who was once Charlie Parker's manager, has described Billie's last days in the notes for an ESP album of Billie Holiday radio performances.

In June, 1959, her liver badly damaged, Billie was taken in a coma to Metropolitan Hospital, where she was placed in an oxygen tent. After twelve days she regained consciousness but “still remained on the critical list, having to be fed intravenously while receiving blood transfusions.

“One morning, nine hours after I had left her bedside the night before,” Maely Dufty wrote, “I found her in a deep rage…. 'You watch, baby, they are going to arrest me in this damn bed.' And so they did. The night nurse claimed she had found a deck of heroin in Billie's handbag, which was hanging from a nail on the wall six feet away from the bottom of her bed. It was virtually impossible for Billie--with hundreds of pounds of equipment strapped to her legs and arms for transfusions--to have moved one inch toward that wall. One hour later the police arrived and arrested Billie Holiday in her hospital bed. Charge: use of narcotics.”

Even assuming the police charge to have been accurate, what followed underlines Billie's long held contention that to the authorities being a drug user is to find oneself on “a one-way street.”

“To make the arrest of a woman in a hospital bed seem more real,” Maely Dufty continued, “the police confiscated her comic books, radio, magazines, a box of Whitman chocolates, and Italian ice cream, and then stationed two cops at the doorless tiny gray hospital room. When I screamed at the authorities that they could not arrest a woman on the critical list, I was told that problem had already been solved: Billie Holiday had been removed from the critical list.”

The issue was soon academic. Billie died in that hospital bed. She was forty-four.

* * * * *

If that were all of Billie, or most of Billie--the victim of herself and of the authorities--the substance of the Holiday legend might indeed be legitimately restricted, though without present distortions, to the tale of the Black Lady of the Gardenias. A latter-day Camille of the jazz grottoes who lit her candle at both ends. But that way of fashioning legend leaves out the essence of Lady Day--her music.

This was a woman who was as deeply pervasive an influence on jazz singing as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were on jazz instrumental playing. Though herself influenced by Armstrong and Bessie Smith (“Honey, I wanted her feeling and Louis's style”), Billie, by the time she was in her twenties, had created a way of singing that was unmistakably her own. Or, as Ralph Cooper, then the compere at Harlem's Apollo Theater, said years ago about Billie: “It ain't the blues. I don't know what it is, but you got to hear her.”

Billie Holiday, for one thing, excelled all jazz singers who had preceded her in her ability to make the lyrics of a song (and some of the songs she was given to record were most ordinary) take on nuances of meaning and feeling that lifted whatever she sang to significance, to many levels of significance. And as John Hammond instantly recognized when she was seventeen, Billie did sing like a horn. (“I try to improvise like Prez, like Louis, or someone else I admire. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know.”) No singer in jazz, before or since, has phrased with such supple inventiveness, as well as with such graceful, illuminating wit. Although nonpareil as a speleologist of the poignancy of ballads, Billie could also be the blithest of mocking spirits. And there was also her timing--her risk-taking playing with the beat, as only the most assured jazz instrumentalists are able to bend time to their feelings.

All these qualities were fused into a storyteller who could make waitresses stand still, cash registers remain un-rung, and bring musicians backing her to applaud--as happened at a Carnegie Hall concert shortly after she was released from the Federal Women's Reformatory.

This bardic quality was hers to the end. There were stumbling off-nights, but the later Lady Day could be more compellingly expressive than the younger lady of the gardenias. In his book, The Reluctant Art, Benny Green, a British musician turned essayist, noted of Billie's singing in the 1950's: “The trappings were stripped away, but where the process would normally leave only the husk of a fine reputation, it only exposed to view, once and for all, the true core of her art, her handling of a lyric. If the last recordings are approached with this fact in mind, they are seen to be, not the insufferable croaking of a woman already half-dead, but recitatives whose dramatic intensity becomes unbearable, statements as frank and tragic as anything throughout the whole range of popular art.”

So it was that less than two years before her death Billie sang Fine and Mellow on The Sound of Jazz with such tender yet acrid power that we cried in the control room and Lester Young was lifted to his feet to, briefly, rejoin Lady Day's life and art. That scene is not in the movie Lady Sings the Blues. That scene is real, as Billie's music can still be so real an experience to those who go to the only remaining source, Lady Day's recordings, to find out who Billie Holiday was.

Of course, for many reasons I wish Billie--and not only her voice--were still present. I'd give a lot to hear her response to socialite Maureen McCluskey who, as reported in the New York Times by Charlotte Curtis, said at a benefit supper party after the premiere of Lady Sings the Blues: “Doesn't everybody look marvelous? Of course, if I could come back again after I die, I'd come back black.”

I would expect that Lady's reaction to that costless fantasy probably could not be printed in the New York Times.