April 7, 2015 would have been Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday. Normally this wouldn’t be any more notable than her 50th or 75th, since she only lived to 44. But jazz was a 20th century development approaching its 100th or so anniversary as the 2020s approach so assessing her legacy is germane. Billie Holiday is probably the most honored singer in the jazz canon. The singers who have recorded album length tributes Holiday include Tony Bennett, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Rosemary Clooney, Nnenna Freelon, Miki Howard, Etta James, Etta Jones, Ranee Lee, Abbey Lincoln and Carmen McRae. Additionally, Peggy Lee, Susannah McCorkle, Frank Sinatra, and Dinah Washington have all overtly cited Holiday as an influence.
It’s almost redundant for singers to record tributes if only because Holiday recorded such a wide range of the standards repertoire and was so influential stylistically it’s unfathomable that any jazz singer isn’t already saluting her. Holiday’s signature songs like “Don’t Explain,” “Fine and Mellow,” “God Bless the Child,” “Good Morning Heartache,” “Lover Man,” “My Man,” “That Ole Devil Called Love,” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” are such cornerstones that jazz singers inadvertently acknowledge Holiday even if they record this material without a tribute in mind.
Any singer who swings, who dares to be personal and vulnerable in their lyric interpretation, and who locates the blues in their music owes some debt to Holiday. Most recently Cassandra Wilson, a pioneer in expanding the repertoire and arrangements acceptable within jazz (via 1993’s Blue Light Til’ Dawn; 1995’s New Moon Daughter) and José James, an up-and-coming vocalist who hovers between contemporary R&B and traditional jazz have released Holiday tributes in 2015. The fact that two singers of different generations and musical identities both chose Holiday symbolizes her relevance and the relevance of jazz in the 21st century. Holiday endures as an inspiration a cross genre, generation, and gender.
As Farah Jasmine Griffin’s great Holiday biography If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery articulated so beautifully there’s more to Holiday than tragedy and gloom. Before drug addiction overwhelmed her Holiday explored as wide a gamut of emotional and stylistic ground as any singer before her, or since. There is an erotic charge to “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and “Them There Eyes” that freed these songs from the cute to the slyly sensual. Of course early on Holiday was also a balladeer nonpareil. After being saddled with novelty songs at Okeh Records/Columbia for years she gained access to the highest quality standards around 1936-37 including “Summertime,” “Easy to Love,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I’ve Got my Love to Keep Me Warm,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” among others. Around the late ‘30s and early ‘40s she put her signature style on tunes like “More than You Know,” “Night and Day,” “The Man I Love,” and “Body and Soul.” She also bravely stepped away from traditional love songs to record the anti-lynching protest song “Strange Fruit” in 1939 for Commodore Records, where she also recorded “Fine and Mellow,” “Yesterdays” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” on the same recording date. At Decca Records she continued to grow into her voice recording signatures like “Lover Man,” “Easy Living,” and “Good Morning Heartache.” More legendary recordings happened at Clef Records where she re-recorded songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s with a more seasoned patina, and added new material to her repertoire like “Prelude to a Kiss,” “What’s New,” and “Autumn in New York.”
These songs are now recognized universally as some of the greatest ever written. Her rhythmic acumen, lyric honesty and blues sensibility were always there; once she got songs with real musical and lyrical substance she had material to fully explore her gifts. One survey of the songs she recorded over her 26 years, including the songs cited above, reveals her excelling in multiple modes: effusive, lustful, heartbroken, yearning, playful, wryly ironic, romantic, wistful, resilient, reflective, vulnerable, wise, grateful, and generous, among other emotional spaces.
It’s easy and tempting to lionize one aspect of her career—the torch songs—but what you hear in her music is one of the broadest emotional palettes in popular music. In 26 years she touched upon a vaster range of emotional states of being and inhabited a wider range of lyric situations than many singers have done in much longer careers. Consciously choosing to sing her songs as her life, she authored a new vision of songs as personal statements rather than big band ephemera or formal displays of technique. Beyond chord progressions songs became something real, connected to life itself. They became important rather than just recreational.
By interpreting the best pop songs with such emotional and musical sublimity she elevated popular music itself from something trivial, “vulgar,” and distracting to a vital force in the popular imagination. She is perhaps the definitive icon of swing, torch songs, blue jazz, among other multiple sub-genres. As a songwriter and singer she also forged a distinctly female point of view delightfully accessible to multiple genders. She also made race an integral part of popular music through acknowledging one of humanity’s most inhumane crimes in “Strange Fruit.” Finally, Holiday formed a legendary synergy with her fellow musicians, notably pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Lester Young, that was a blueprint for her vocal followers in jazz who also aspired to be taken serious as jazz musicians themselves.
Holiday is one of the pillars in the American vocal pantheon. The possibility of her living to realize her 100th birthday is a delicious scenario. But, as tragic as her 1959 death was we must remind ourselves that everyday someone is performing in a nightclub, recording in a studio, or mimicking the phrasing on one of her recordings they are saluting her influence. In that sense everyday is a Holiday.
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