Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Billie's Blues, Billie Holiday

Billie’s Blues, Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra, July 10, 1936

Bunny Berigan, trumpet

Artie Shaw, clarinet

Joe Bushkin, piano

Dick McDonough, guitar

Pete Peterson, bass

Cozy Cole, drums

Billie Holiday, vocal

This is a good song to listen to for getting the jazz blues idiom into our ears. When we can identify a chorus structure we can consider a song by its shape, and by learning to pay attention to each individual chorus as a particular unit we can make more sense of the individual contributions of the performers, all of whom in this case are superb and at the top of their form.

The short-lived, alcoholic Bunny Berigan was one of the top swing trumpeters as well as a successful vocalist himself. Artie Shaw was a matinee idol and an excellent jazz clarinetist and band leader, He was also, at the time, Billie's lover.

We can start with the nature of the blues lyric, and blues poetry, which consists of three phrases, the first two being variants of each other, and the third as a contrasting verse which also serves as a kind of resolution or completion of whatever is posed in the first two lines. Blues lyrics are typically both expressively and substantively interesting. Often they seem to be two things at the same time – important and trivial, or meaningful and meaningless, or planned and spontaneous. They may be angry, sad, happy, whatever. In this case, the emotions seem to jumble all together.

So we listen to the sound of her voice - her tone - which has both a soft and a hard-edged quality, and feels both rich and thin, both raspy and elegant, both slurred and precise, all at the same time. We listen for the character behind the words, who again seems to combine opposites: she sounds both tough or assertive and weak or passive. We listen to the words of the song; again there is this combination of upbeat joy, as in the first chorus (“I love my man, tell the world I do”) and some pretty rough stuff in the second (“My man wouldn't give me no breakfast wouldn't give me no dinner”). In the final chorus the singer sings about herself from the perspective of other men, again seeming to confirm her disparate, even bipolar nature.

We learn to get used to listening for things in a solo. Listening for what? Well, we just seek it out, whatever it is, wherever we can find it. The technical lexicon of music is not our concern here. When we listen to a solo we find whatever you find, but we learn to recognize it as an individual accomplishment, often as an assertion of individuality.

We learn also to listen to the accompaniment, particularly in the first chorus here to Cozy Cole on drums. We feel how they punctuate the rhythm of the piece and add a kind of rhetorical emphasis that almost says. “Here, listen up.”

As always in a jazz or blues, we try to see how the performers respond to each other. We think of it as a conversation.

Intro 00 – 7

Dick McDonough on guitar establishes a boogie beat going up and down the scale, in the first two bars and then Joe Bushkin joins in on the piano for the next two. This is the introduction to the piece, which takes four bars.

First blues chorus 8 – 32

This is a duet played in unison by Bunnie Berigan on trumpet and Artie Shaw on clarinet, accompanied by Joe Bushkin on piano, Cozy Cole on drums, Dick McDonough and Pete Peterson on guitar and bass, all filling in behind the soloists. Listen to the trumpet solo, how it handles itself and how it feels, and to where it starts and finishes. Now try to distinguish it from the clarinet, which now and then peels off on a solitary moan.

Second blues chorus 33 – 55

Here is Billie with Artie

Lord I love my man, tell the world I do!

I love my man, tell the world I do!

But when he mistreats me, makes me feel so blue.

Billie Holiday’s entrance here is incredibly joyous and heartfelt; you can almost tell she is smiling. Here Artie Shaw accompanies Billie, filling in by wailing off in the background.

Third blues chorus 0.56 – 1:20

Here Billie sings with Pete Peterson on bass and a line or two of Berigan

My man wouldn't give me no breakfast wouldn't give me no dinner, squawked about my supper and put me outdoors

Had the nerve to lay a matchbox on my clothes

I didn't have so many but I had a long, long ways to go

Fourth blues chorus 1:21 – 1:45

Artie Shaw's on clarinet solo with rhythm accompaniment.

1:46 – 2:11 Fifth blues chorus

Bunny Berigan on trumpet, starting out with an aggressive (and somewhat show-offy) growling.

Sixth blues chorus 2:12 – 2:37

Billie with the ensemble in a first rate final chorus.

Some men like me ‘cause happy, some ‘cause I’m snappy, some call me honey, others think I got money

Some tell me, “Baby, you built for speed!”

Now if you put that all together makes me everything a good man needs