The other day a high school friend wrote to say that in the course of selling off his record collection he’d found an old Stan Kenton LP of mine and wondered if I wanted it back. I’d have told him no thanks, except that Stan Kenton had autographed it to me, so of course I wanted it and here it is on the desk as I write, with the legendary band leader, mid-century modernism incarnate, gazing out at me from the cover. On another occasion, the same friend and I had our Count Basie Dance Session LPs signed by everyone in the band, including the Count and Henry Snodgrass, the old guy in charge of the equipment.
This siege of jazz nostalgia was inspired by the fact that 2015 is the centenary year for Billie Holiday, who was born April 7, 1915, and Frank Sinatra, born eight months later on December 12. Around the time I was in thrall to Kenton and Basie and singing along with Sinatra, Billie Holiday was somewhere else far far away, terra incognita, no man’s land. Scary. Creepy. After all, this was someone whose rendition of “Gloomy Sunday” had supposedly driven people to suicide, and then there was “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching. I couldn’t listen to her. It wasn’t just that she sang songs with depressing subjects, it was the way she sang: dreary and dismal, our lady of misery. So I thought.
Sinatra was something else again. Like his character Maggio in From Here to Eternity, he came off as an in-your-face life-force, pugnacious, hip (so I thought), totally upbeat, and what a singer. I lived in albums like Nice and Easy, Swing Easy, and Songs for Young Lovers. I knew every smooth and sly and sliding Sinatra nuance from hours and hours of singing along with him, songs like “A Foggy Day,” “The Girl Next Door,” and “How Little We Know,” with that joy-to-enunciate couplet, “How little we understand what touches off that tingle/That sudden explosion when two tingles intermingle.” Definitely a lot more fun than than a song that rhymes “sweet and fresh” with “burnin’ flesh.”
So it goes in the pilgrim’s progress of a lifetime of listening, where Sinatra falls by the wayside, marred by his smug Rat Pack image and those gaudy Nelson Riddle arrangements, while Billie Holiday looms among the absolutes, like Charlie Parker or Lester Young or Wardell Gray, all of whom were either unknown to me or unfathomable in the days when Kenton and Sinatra reigned supreme. It hurts to think that as an underage youth at Birdland I once saw a sad old man named Lester Young playing as if he might not live to see the end of the next solo (he was actually only 48 at the time), standing so close to my clueless teenage self that I could see the bloodshot whites of his eyes and sense only the faintest possibility that the music he was dying for might be something special.
How She Happened
A mid-April night of rain and mist on Christopher Street in the Village, the window open, fresh wet air blowing in, a blue transistor radio perched near the edge of the sill. Someone is singing. The song seems to come in with the wet breeze, it’s a ghostly voice, wayward, out of line, beyond borders, extraordinary. I’m hearing, finally really hearing, Billie Holiday. Misery had nothing to do with this siren song in the New York night leading the way to a brave new world of music.
Three years later I’m leaning on another window sill in a brownstone at 33 West 87th Street listening to Billie Holiday on my portable Columbia stereo, unaware that she’d once lived in the building across the street, number 26, her last home. The next stop after that was Metropolitan Hospital, where she died at 44 on July 17, 1959.
“This Heart of Mine”
I can’t remember the name of the Billie Holiday song I heard that first misty night but the ones that feel closest to the mood of the revelation are “Yesterdays” and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” both recorded in 1944 for Commodore, a jazz label that evolved from a midtown record store. She might not have the copyright but she owns those words, those titles, not to mention that she was born 100 years ago yesterday, as Eleanora Fagan, to Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday. While the name “Billie” was reportedly inspired by the silent film star Billie Dove, the singer would tell more than one interviewer that because her father had wanted a boy he called her Bill (this was before he left her and her mother behind to become a jazz guitarist).
Listening to Holiday sing “Yesterdays,” there’s the sense at first that she’s whispering the words in your ear with her dying breath, but next thing you know she’s rhyming and romancing the choice phrase “sweet sequestered days,” she whose personal university offered a course in English taught by lyricists, most of them white males. In this song, her teacher is a Danish-American named Otto Harbach who came from Salt Lake City to New York looking for a graduate degree at Columbia until Tin Pan Alley gathered him in. One of Holiday’s loveliest moments is when she and Harbach and Jerome Kern join forces for the rushed ascent, as smoothly sinuous as a phrasing by Lester Young translated into “gay youth was mine, truth was mine/Joyous free in flame and life/Then sooth was mine.”
In “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the muted, musing accompaniment casts a subtle spell behind Billie, who turns each distinctly felt word of the lyric to her emotional advantage. Critics and publicists talk about singers selling a song, or putting one over, but this is a transformation performed by a born poet on the material of everyday life: ordinary words for old familiar places, small cafes, parks across the way, children’s carousels, wishing wells, sun and moon, and above all “this heart of mine,” wounded, devoutly bitter, and true to the end of life.
Lady in Satin
Of the early/middle/late periods of a career Gary Giddins has compared to “the three works-in-one” of Don Quixote (only Giddins could find a way to connect Billie to “the equally inscrutable Edgar A. Poe”), the more stately, measured, middle-period Commodore sides are in clear contrast to the jubilant, sassy, free-swinging Holiday of early Columbia recordings like “Me, Myself, and I,” which is distinguished by the extrasensory rapport between Lady Day and her soulmate Lester Young.
Bathed in Ray Ellis’s grandiose arrangements for her penultimate album, Lady in Satin, Holiday lingers over the challenge of every song as if she knows that a little more than a year later she will be lying for hours on a gurney in a hospital corridor, unidentified, unclaimed, and uncared for. Left off the original album but included as a bonus track on the remastered 1997 CD is a forgettable composition called “The End of a Love Affair.” Her struggle to learn, to like, or to at least endure the piece is at once fascinating and painful, the crisis coming when she sings, rasps, lives, and dies the mundane words a cappella. The process resembles an eccentric form of critical thinking: as if she were weighing and measuring the ridiculous material, dissecting the song as she sings it.
Quoted in the liner notes to the reissue, Ray Ellis says “After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.”
Fine and Mellow
Google “Billie Holiday Fine and Mellow” and there she is, as close as you’ll ever get to her, radiant, singing, smiling, making beautiful music even when she’s simply listening, being herself, seated on a stool at the center of a circle of legendary musicians in New York City, CBS Studio 58 on 10th Avenue, where The Sound of Jazz was filmed, December 8 1957.
The first thing you hear is Billie saying “The blues to me is like being very sad, very sick, going to church, being very happy. There’s two kinds of blues, happy blues and there’s sad blues.” One of the few songs Billie wrote, “Fine and Mellow” is both.
Nat Hentoff, who along with Whitney Balliett, helped produce the session and enlist the musicians, suggests that what made “Fine and Mellow” the climax of the show was what went on between Billie Holiday and Lester Young: “she had given him his nickname, Prez, and he was the guy who called her Lady Day, which other people came to call her. They had been very close for a long time, but then they stopped being close. They paid very little attention to each other while we were rehearsing the show… When it came to his solo, Lester stood up and he blew the purest blues I have ever heard. Watching Billie and Lester interact, she was watching him with her eyes with a slight smile, and it looked as if she and Lester were remembering other times, better times. And this is true — it sounds corny — in the control room, the producer had tears in his eyes. So did the engineer. So did I. It was just extraordinarily moving.”
Billie’s appreciative reactions to each musician’s solo may be the best thing in the number. As she listens, the beauty of her face, seen in profile, is uncanny. Those close-up side views are as luminously here and now as they are otherworldly. It’s as Giddins says, “the greatest art never loses its mystery. The better we know hers, the more dreamlike and sensational it seems.”
Out just in time for the centenary is John Szwed’s new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking), which Richard Brody’s review on newyorker.com, terms a meta-biography, about the creation of Holiday’s public image in media of all sorts: print, television, movies, and, of course, her recordings, but with special attention to the composition of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.
The Gary Giddins quotes are from Visions of Jazz and Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century.