Words become pitiful tools when we use them to describe music. Most commonly even the best writers fall back on analogies. He’s like the Beatles. She sounds like Patsy Cline. The idea here is to come up with someone you have heard as a means of introducing you to someone you’re unfamiliar with.
And then there’s Billie Holiday, who sounds like no one else. Good luck with that.
In Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, a book that is less standard biography and more an extended commentary on Holiday’s art, the shrewd and generous author John Szwed writes, “Billie Holiday’s voice is odd, indelibly odd, and so easy to recognize, but so difficult to describe. In her early years, some called it sad, olive-toned, whisky-hued, lazy, feline, smoky, unsentimental, weird.”
Szwed goes on to quote the composer and jazz historian Gunther Schuller: “We can, of course, describe and analyze the surface mechanics of her art: her style, her technique, her personal vocal attributes, and I suppose a poet could express the essence of her art or at least give us, by poetic analogy, his particular insight into it. But, as with all truly profound art, that which operates above, below, and all around its outer manifestations is what most touches us, and also remains ultimately mysterious.”
Holiday herself never thought much of her own voice. Szwed mentions a rehearsal tape where she’s joking with the other musicians, and says, “I’m telling you, me and my old voice, it just go up a little bit and come down a little bit. It’s not legit. I do not got a legitimate voice. This voice of mine is a mess, a cat got to know what he’s doing when he plays with me.”
The last half of that last sentence is the only truth in all that.
She would have turned 100 on April 7. Of course, she didn’t get anywhere close. She died in 1959 at the age of 44, wasted by years of heroin addiction, cirrhosis, and ultimately heart failure. But the medical report took no account of the hard life she’d lived, a life that included many bad choices—bad choices in men, bad choices about drugs and alcohol. But there was also hardship that she never asked for and was powerless to avoid as an African-American female artist in the first half of the last century. Indeed, the police hounded her on a possession rap right into the hospital, handcuffed her to the bed and put a guard at her door who was only removed one day before she died.
Reading of her life, it is altogether possible to suspect that the only sustained peace she ever knew was when she opened her mouth and sang. What happened then was like nothing anyone has ever heard before or since.
Of course she had influences, and of course she had imitators. That said, she remains inimitable. There is a long list of things she wasn’t. She wasn’t a torch singer, a red hot mama, a chanteuse, or cabaret singer. She knew her way around the blues, but she was not a conventional blues singer. It’s a lot harder to say what she was, but you could start by calling her the greatest jazz singer who ever lived and go on from there.
The publication of Szwed’s book is timed to her centennial, and so is a new album from Columbia, the company where she recorded most of her greatest songs. Billie Holiday: The Centennial Collection plays it safe and sticks to the front end of her career. The 20 songs included here were recorded between 1935 and 1944, and if you are looking for a place to start with Holiday, this is an excellent, if all too brief, introduction (ditto on the Szwed book). Right from the first cut, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” it’s obvious that there’s nothing anyone can teach her. Then it just keeps on getting better.
“I don’t think I’m singing,” she said once when talking about her delivery. “I feel like I’m playing a horn.” Listening to these songs, you can hear what she means. She’s not like a singer being supported by a band—she’s part of the band, parrying what they do with her voice, challenging them on the rhythm and forcing the intensity up a notch or two every time she sings. And they’re singing with her—Szwed is very good at identifying the passages where her accompanists become her melodic collaborators, improvising countermelodies under her vocals, which were in themselves far more improvisational than is usual even with good singers.
Included on the new Columbia album is the 1939 single version of “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching that, as Szwed points out, appeared the same year Gone With the Wind opened, the same year the Daughters of the American Revolution told Marian Anderson she couldn’t sing at Constitution Hall. Szwed’s section on this protest song that was years ahead of its time is worth the price of his book, but nothing anyone can write will prepare you for its power. Most showcase numbers like this lose something over time. They’re part of their moment, and interesting for reasons more historical than musical. Not this one. I wouldn’t want to play it every day—and there are lots of Holiday songs that I would like to play all the time—but every time I hear “Strange Fruit,” it astonishes me all over again. It is not typical Holiday, not typical anybody, but it is indispensible.
There is nothing on this new collection from the back end of Holiday’s career, when her voice was ravaged and she was getting by on that faultless sense of phrasing and rhythm. That’s a shame, really, because late Holiday, even when it’s diminished and rough, can still tear you up inside.
Even in decline, she had good days when magically the voice was all there. Watch this clip recorded for 1957 CBS television special “The Sound of Jazz.
She not only sings beautifully, but you get a real glimpse of what made her special not only to her audience but to the musicians who shared bandstands with her. Unlike a lot of singers, she didn’t check out when she wasn’t singing. Throughout the song, when others are soloing, she’s completely into what they’re playing, nodding and smiling at particular licks, and especially during the short but gorgeous solo by her soulmate Lester Young (it was Young who nicknamed her Lady Day, and Holiday who nicknamed him Prez), although at that point they had not spoken in some years, after a falling out.
Szwed doesn’t think she pays Young any special attention, but every time I see it, I recall the clip in Page Eight, the dazzling film written and directed by David Hare in which Bill Nighy plays Johnny Worricker, a British intelligence agent and jazz fan. In one scene, Worricker is showing his neighbor this very clip on his computer, and he says, while Young is playing and Holiday is watching him, “Look at her. She’s so in love with Lester Young.” And then Young finishes and she takes up the melody. “But not so much that she forgets when it’s her turn.”
The scene is there to tell us a little more about Nighy’s character, but it wouldn’t be there at all if Hare, like so many of us, weren’t so smitten with Billie Holiday. It’s like a little love note, a tiny extraneous homage that he’s tucked into his movie, and it makes my heart fill up every time I see it, because I know just how he feels.