[JPL] Billie Holiday, Live: A Biography in Music By NAT HENTOFF
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Billie Holiday, Live: A Biography in Music
By NAT HENTOFF
February 12, 2008; Page D7
"Billie must have come from another world," said Roy Eldridge, often heard
accompanying her on trumpet, "because nobody had the effect on people she
had. I've seen her make them cry and make them happy." Lady Day, as tenor
saxophonist Lester Young named Billie Holiday, still has that effect through
the many reissues of her recordings, including the recently released "Lady
Day: The Master Takes and Singles" of the 1933-44 sessions (Columbia/Legacy,
available on Amazon) that established her in the jazz pantheon.
I grew up listening to those sides, which infectiously demonstrated -- as
pianist Bobby Tucker, her longtime pianist, noted -- that "she could swing
the hardest in any tempo, even if it was like a dirge . . . wherever it was,
she could float on top of it." But none of the previous reissues, as
imperishable as they are, have as intense a presence of Lady as in the truly
historic new five-disc set "Billie Holiday: Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959"
on Bernard Stollman's ESP-Disk label (on Amazon, in stores, or at
Lady Day at a recording session
This is a model for future retrospectives of classic jazz artists of any era
because researcher and compiler Michael Anderson, in his extensive liner
notes, provides a timeline of her jazz life -- describing the circumstances
of each performance in the context of her evolving career. One example: a
live radio remote from Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in 1937 when the 22-year-old
singer "began a special association with her comrade, 'The Prez,' Lester
Young" -- grooving with the Count Basie band in "Swing Brother Swing."
Producer Anderson is a veteran radio broadcaster (including gigs at WBGO-FM
in Newark, N.J., and with Sirius Satellite Radio) and a former jazz drummer.
He was in Sun Ra's fabled visionary Arketstra and led bands of his own. As
Mr. Anderson was growing up, collecting jazz records, "in my early teens,"
he told me, "I would have a Billie Holiday day each week where I only played
His devoted immersion in tracking down performances by her from around the
country takes us, for example, from an after-hours Harlem club, Clark
Monroe's Uptown House, in 1941 to the Eddie Condon radio show in 1949, where
Holiday dedicates "Keep on Rainin' " to Bessie Smith, whom she heard on
records back in her hometown, Baltimore.
There is a series of extraordinarily moving sets at George Wein's Boston
club, Storyville (from which I used to do jazz remotes), in 1951. Billie,
backed by just a house rhythm section, is more deeply affecting in "I Cover
the Waterfront," "Crazy He Calls Me" and other songs here than in any of her
Six years later, she was on CBS TV's "The Sound of Jazz," for which Whitney
Balliett and I had selected the musicians. In a sequence still being played
around the world, she sings her own blues, "Fine and Mellow," with Lester
Young among the players.
Once close, Billie and The Prez had grown apart. But on this meeting Young,
though in failing health, stood up and played one of the purest blues
choruses I'd ever heard, and Billie -- her eyes meeting his -- joined him
back in private time, smiling. In the control room, there were tears in my
eyes and in those of the director and the sound engineer.
It was on that program that she said, "Anything I sing is part of my life."
And her singing became part of many peoples' lives.
She sometimes performed just for friends. During a private recording in this
collection, Billie sings "My Yiddishe Mama" and then her own
autobiographical song of rebellious independence, "God Bless the Child," to
a youngster in the room. I doubt that child fully understood the import of
the lyrics then, but the child may well have later in life.
Especially revealing of Billie's evolving approaches to a song is a series
of rehearsals with bassist Artie Shapiro and pianist Jimmy Rowles, the
master accompanist to jazz vocalists. Between takes, she talks about her
early jobs with bands and jokes with Rowles.
What should surprise some of the critics who have concluded that in Billie's
last years her voice and spirits showed the wear and strain of her sometime
discordant personal life are the final performances here at Storyville in
April 1959. Her singing, three months before she died at the age of 44,
swings with the verve, the wit and the essential quality that her admirer
Ray Charles sums up at the end of the fifth disc: "To be any kind of a
singer you have to have feeling, and the one thing you can't teach is
feeling." As evidence, Holiday concludes her last 1959 set at Storyville
with her own "Billie's Blues":
I ain't good lookin'
and my hair ain't curled,
but my mother, she give me something,
it's gonna carry me through this world.
A year before Billie died, I was talking with Miles Davis about the
increasing lament, even among some musicians, that she was breaking down
into a much lesser Lady Day.
"You know," Miles said in exasperation at those ears that had turned to tin,
"she's not thinking now what she was in 1937. And she still has control,
probably more control than then."
At the end of his liner notes for his remarkable achievement in discovering
and assembling this "live" musical biography in "Billie Holiday: Rare Live
Recordings 1934-1959," Michael Anderson writes: "Later generations have an
entire legacy to discover, and veteran enthusiasts can always recollect the
times the music of Lady Day was vibrant and alive through everything she had
gone through in her life."
Billie once spoke of what Louis Armstrong's trumpet meant to her as a young
girl in Baltimore: "He didn't say any words but somehow it just moved me so.
It sounded so sad and sweet, all at the same time. It sounded like he was
making love to me. That's how I wanted to sing."
It wasn't that, as Roy Eldridge said, she'd come from another world. Rough
as her own life had been between songs in this world, Billie became -- and
will continue to become -- part of so many lives.
Mr. Hentoff writes about jazz for the Journal.
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