Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Listening to Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is one of America’s great artists of the 20th century. In jazz her peers include the other jazz innovators such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and a small handful of others. Like them, much of her greatness stems from what she could uniquely bring to this style of music with her instrument, in this case her voice. Like them, the enormous influence she has had on subsequent performers is incalculable.

She is often referred to as a blues singer, which is correct, though also misleading. She is best identified within the swing idiom, which she helped to establish. Swing is a music and dance style that emerged out of the innovations of Louis Armstrong by the late twenties and early thirties. It is generally associated with larger bands than the combos from New Orleans and Chicago, though the groups Billie Holiday sang with were generally smallish. With swing music a light, propulsive beat seems to make dancers of all the performers, and rather than pitting a rhythm section and a front line against each other, with swing the rhythm section is joined by both a horn section and a reed section. Collective improvisation is out, but solo improvisation in swing music takes on even greater expressive qualities. So, how is Billie Holiday a blues artist? She brings to swing music an especially effective personal tone, so that her voice emerges more as an instrument like any other in the band than as someone standing apart singing the words. As a vocalist she is a fully fledged member of the band musically, which was not the case with most other singers.

One of Billie Holiday’s talents was an amazing control over a very limited melodic range; another was her phenomenal rhythm. Musicologist Gunther Schuller says she was “most comfortable between G and A. As a result she invariably compressed melodies into that range, often going beyond vocal necessity to the sheer joy of invention in smoothing out the contours of particularly rangy lines.”

Now, what’s so great about that? On the face of it, you might think that as good as she is, someone with a greater vocal range could be greater. Maybe someone who could reach all the notes might do better? Yes, there may be better singers, in the generally accepted sense of the term, but Billie Holiday’s ability to do so much with so little is more than just a feat. The range and intensity of the feelings she brings to the music—and these are feelings she shares with her many fans as they listen—are well expressed by this, again: “often going beyond vocal necessity to the sheer joy of invention in smoothing out the contours of particularly rangy lines.”

She makes these songs entirely her own, creating with each song a new way of expressing it, partly through exploiting her limited vocal range, partly through her sense of rhythm, partly through her keen awareness of who was playing with her, and also through an infectious enthusiasm and joy which propels most of her recordings. There is not less here, but more. The metaphors one thinks of include that she inhabits the song, living in it and sharing with the audience its life; that she wears the song, displaying how it looks on her as if it was a particularly fetching outfit; and that she has taken over the song, painting and coloring it and twisting and shaping it so that the song becomes something quite new.

Her influence has been profound, although not always beneficent. What she does so well - including express individual feelings within the confines of artistic production - others do not.

Billie Holiday’s work is noteworthy in part because many of the songs themselves are unpromising. Holiday takes virtually nothing from other recordings or interpretations of the songs she sings. She learned, instead, from two principal sources—and they were the best—Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Louis Armstrong’s vocals transformed jazz singing—listen for example to his version of The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Bessie Smith’s astonishingly powerful and mesmerizing blues meant a lot to Billie Holiday, though their styles are markedly different—listen to anything Bessie Smith recorded, like Young Woman’s Blues. I expect she took many things from both of these vocal artists, in particular a sense of the authority of accomplishment that can be achieved by doing something as well as it can be done.

Unlike many other recordings, when the star vocalist is not singing the music remains extremely interesting. Another enormous talent Billie Holiday brought to her recordings was a knack for gathering other great artists around her, and bringing out their best. These are not just Billie Holiday songs, but the songs of an ensemble of some of the best performers of the day playing in a relaxed and joyful atmosphere—doubtless enhanced by various drugs, principally alcohol and marijuana.

It won’t take much work for most students to listen to her recordings, which are universally admired as masters of jazz interpretation even by those who find her particular style of singing not to their taste. When you know the melody, you are better equipped as a listener to follow what the soloists are doing with it. Most of her songs are in the 32-bar AABA song structure. though a few of her best-known works are 12-bar blues. We learn to listen to these songs by following the way each individual soloist, Billie and the instrumentalists—who are always worth listening to—approach the song, and how they contribute to its structure.

The players usually made four songs together in one long session in the studio; individual soloists take turns playing or singing the choruses; the rhythm section and sometimes other instrumentalists generally accompanying the others in their solos. When Billie sings these numbers—she increasingly would take the first chorus, thus setting the tone—she is just one other member of the band doing her thing.

A Brief Biography

In my humanities courses I try to steer clear of artist biographies; we have only a limited amount of time and the task is to learn and practice analysis and interpretation. In the case of Billie Holiday, her biography has become part of American legend, and has in some ways distorted our view of the artist. It is common to view Billie Holiday as a victim: of racism, of poverty, of drugs, of men, of you name it. She certainly suffered inordinately, and was mistreated by many, especially by authorities. When I listen to her work I don’t get that feeling at all. She sounds like someone in charge of things, at least while the recording plays.

There is an autobiography called Lady Sings the Blues (1956), which Billie Holiday claimed never to have even read; it was ghost-written by journalist William Dufty and published a few years before she died.

Billie Holiday’s given name was Elinore Harris. She was born in 1915 in Philadelphia General Hospital on April 7th, at 2.30am, if you’re interested. Her mother was 18 when Billie was born. Her father, Clarence Holiday, was a jazz guitarist. He never married Billie’s mother, and abandoned mother and child. Billie Holiday took her last name from her father, and her first name either from Billie Dove, an actress at the time, or from somebody else.

Billie Holiday was a cabaret singer when she started to record in the early thirties. The series of songs she made for Columbia in the 1930s under the general direction of John Hammond have always been popular with jazz fans; they boast the talents of some of the greatest performers of the day and are still astonishingly fresh and original. In later years, after her addiction to heroin, Billie Holiday recordings became almost unrecognizable to earlier fans; her voice seemed to reflect years of hard living. Many artists, however, prefer the later material for its deeply expressive qualities. Billie Holiday died at 3:20am (if you’re interested) on the 17th of July, 1959, in the Manhattan Metropolitan Hospital and is buried with her mother in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.

We know of 663 different recordings Billie Holiday made and that are available; put together they make up about 40 hours of music, plus 50 minutes of video (movies). She recorded 306 different melodies: 214 once, 42 twice and 50 three times or more.

What People Have Said

In mid-1935, Teddy Wilson was only twenty-two, and Billie just twenty. They made fourteen sides together that year, and they had already made history. (Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday, Donald Clarke)

One of the wonderful things about her is that she lights up some pretty average songs, and there's a playfulness on the earlier records. Then it gets far more intense, and you get the great duets, with Lester Young. Sinatra covered a lot of songs that she did. It's interesting that he took so much from Billie Holiday. It's an interesting tribute to her that a singer so self-possessed as Sinatra clearly took so much, and I feel it's because she just imprinted herself all over those songs. (Elvis Costello)

With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years. (Frank Sinatra)

She could take a tawdry tune and do it, turn it around forty different ways, which she used to have to do in night clubs, because, you know, she'd sing to tables, particularly in speakeasies. You see there was a, there was, there was no sound systems in speakeasies because that might get out into the street, so, so she would sing very quietly at various tables, and sing the same tune differently at each table. It was just an unbelievable feat, you know, just came absolutely natural to Billie. I never heard another singer who could do it this way. By this time I had gotten Billie a business association with Brunswick records and Vocalion records, and she could go into the studio any time.'(John Hammond).

Billie Holiday was a keen observer. She saw through lyrics and she saw through people. And she chose what and who she wanted. She sang every song not only as if she had written it herself, but as if she had written it that very morning. (Maya Angelou)

It is a truism to regard Billie Holiday as one of the great artists of jazz. But her art transcends the usual categorizations of style, content, and technique. Much of her singing goes beyond itself and becomes a humanistic document; it passed often into a realm that is not only beyond criticism but in the deepest sense inexplicable. We can, of course, describe and analyze the surface mechanics of her art: her style, her techniques, 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 touches us, and also remains ultimately mysterious. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, 528)

So powerful is the mystery of her art and the fatal attraction of Billie’s tragic life that many writers and critics have been unable to resist reading their own personal creeds and philosophical tenets into her work. Thus many have seen only its tragic side, emphasizing the oppression of black artists, racism, the evil forces of commercialism: “the messenger of miser,” as Leonard Feather once put it. Indeed, latecomer to her work, drawn to it—like the non-musical intelligentsia and political left—by her recording of Strange Fruit (1939), were bound to see only the gloomy and, to put it plainly, more calculated aspect of her art, being unaware of the infectious joy and optimism of her early recordings. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, 528-9)

I've never seen Billie Holiday as a victim. She just did what she had to do, dealing with what was going on in society at that time. I identify with the subject matter of her songs, which were mainly about her relationships with the men she chose. I think people may have assumed that she was the typical female victim being controlled by men, but I don't see it that way at all. I don't really see her situation as any different than mine, or that of most of the women I know. I think she had a lot of empathy for people, and she may have had some beautiful losers in her life, but inside every beautiful loser is a beautiful person trying to get out. And how many people always make the right choices and have these wonderful, happy relationships, anyway? Life ultimately is about passion, about feeling passion, and Billie Holiday was nothing if not passionate. (Lucinda Williams)

First, there's her voice, which was technically brilliant, but she also did something that a lot of technical singers can't do, which is convey a helluva lot of truth and emotion. She had a very self-aware, introspective voice, a voice of the soul. Much more important than the drugs was her sexuality, her sexiness. She seduces you immediately. And the other level that's so crucial was she had incredibly good sidemen. I can't tell you how important she is to me. Every time I sing, I pray to Billie Holiday to help me: the singers' saint. (Marianne Faithfull)

Most of these 1935-39 recordings, some with Teddy Wilson-led small groups, others under her own “leadership” (but all organized by John Hammond), are classics of jazz, not only because of Billie’s unique talent but because of the generally high quality and authentic creativity of the accompaniments. Indeed, accompaniments is a misnomer. Whereas on literally thousands of swing era recordings there is a clear qualitative gap between the vocals and their instrumental surroundings, in the case of Billie’s first hundred or so performances, she is an equal among equals. And the joy of these performances is that they are seamless creative entities, not mere instrumental accompaniments for a vocalist, but rather singer and musicians matching and inspiring each other. There is no need to wince or to be tolerant when the vocal comes on. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, 532)

She is the tragic beauty, the self-destructive genius, and the sensual goddess. However, artists are as likely to be drawn to her, not because of her tragedy but because she is a kindred spirit. One who the world failed to protect. One who left us too soon… She is the means by which many writers locate and find confidence in the individuality of their own voices. Her legacy encourages risk and flight in the face of uncertainty and possible failure. The joy is in the journey, the very act of creation itself. (Farah Griffin)

It is impossible (and unnecessary) to enumerate the individual virtues of these many superior recordings. Though they may vary somewhat in quality, I dare say there is not one that is not worth hearing, that doesn’t have some outstanding moments, either vocally, or instrumentally, or both. (Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, 532)'