Listening to Lady Day with fresh ears

Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth

By John Szwed

Viking, 2015


                                                  Copyright  ©  2015


When I was a child the film Lady Sings the Blues (starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor) was the kind of movie broadcast on Saturday afternoons on local channels that showed syndicated programs and old movies years before Fox, UPN, and the WB took them over. I remember watching bits and pieces of the film over the years, but reading Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery led me to revisit my conceptions of Billie Holiday including re-watching Lady. Though film critics generally dismissed it as factually questionable and dramatically challenged (though most appreciated Diana Ross’s performance) I interpret the film as more of an impressionistic sketch of Holiday than an attempt to retell her life story. The film’s primary problem for me is not the melodrama, the composite characters, or even its historical liberties. It’s the lack of attention to the most compelling element of Holiday—the music. The film’s nightclub scenes present multiple opportunities to distinguish Holiday’s approach to popular songs from the other singers featured but the movie never digs into the music making it incomplete. 

 Though Holiday’s childhood, failed romances, and addictions are integral to her story, her music forms the nucleus of our interest in Lady Day. As much as the film might be faulted, countless biographies are as guilty as the film in perpetuating distorted visions of Holiday. 

 Musician, author, and former professor John Szwed delves into Holiday’s artistry with the freshest eyes and ears since Griffin in Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth. Both more and less than a traditional biography it’s a smart exegesis of previous clichés, rumors, and gossip employing authoritative primary sources bringing us closer to understanding who Billie Holiday was by focusing on her music and challenging commonsense about her life. Structurally, he divides his argument into “The Myth” (first three chapters) and “The Musician” (Chapters Four-Eight) sections.

 Chapter One reviews the back story of the oft-questioned 1956 Holiday autobiography Lady Sings the Blues which was co-written by Holiday with William Dufty. Here Szwed chiefly reveals Doubleday’s reservations about content and tone, Holiday’s concerns about compromising privacy, and divided critical responses, including explicit concerns from black critics about the image its sordid tales of addiction might project.

 Szwed’s key observation is Holiday’s role in crafting her mythology. Whether we consider her a reliable or unreliable narrator is moot—the point is she was savvy enough to understand her stature and to tell stories that reflected her desired perception from the public. Chapter Two delves further into the public removed from the book, notably white public figures like Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, and Tallulah Bankhead. Here again Szwed reiterates Holiday’s use of media, including magazines, to defend and redefine herself regarding addiction and recovery, racism, and financial issues among others. Holiday’s translation onscreen is also explored including Holiday’s disappointing role in New Orleans, her self-portrayal in the ‘50s TV series The Comeback Story, and her legendary performance on a 1957 episode of The Seven Lively Arts-Sound of Jazz.

 Unlike many singers of her generation there are limited cinematic and televisual representations of Holiday which further limits our access to her outside of music. What we have is mostly forgettable—Holiday traversing of an old Hollywood version of black servitude (she portrays a maid in the film) in the ‘40s, and a tacky re-enactment of her troubled life (Benny Goodman and others refused to participate) in the relatively new medium of television. Ironically, toward the end of her life as addiction ravages her voice, a single program manages to successfully capture her in her essence: singing with a stellar group of musicians.

 Comparing the magic captured in the 1957 clip with the 1972 film illuminates its lost potential. As Szwed notes, an adaption of the biography was in the works for decades until Motown finally seized it more as an opportunity to make profitable entertainment than a musical portrait. Though Szwed dismisses Ross’s singing (“far from Holiday’s technically in its phrasing and rhythmic feel”) I enjoy the loose, woozy quality of her singing in the film and on the popular soundtrack. Again, she approaches the character through homage more than imitation giving her room to bask in the screenplay’s liberties such as her warm relationship to “Piano Man” played by Richard Pryor. While she is not Holiday there’s a fleet gleeful quality to her vocal performances afforded by the greater rhythmic freedom of the arrangements than her Motown material. I think Szwed dismisses the film a little too readily. If anything Ross’s vocal performance and vulnerable depiction conveys how even a great performer can struggle to capture Holiday.

 “The Myth” section, which concludes with a discussion of Holiday’s photographic imagery, is a lucid, engaging appetizer for Szwed’s main course—an intimate discussion of her musical genius in “The Musician.” Unlike a lay critic he moves beyond generic descriptors of her style to technically informed but accessible analyses of what she does musically and why it is notable. 

 Szwed draws a map of the female singing traditions that preceded Holiday in Chapter Four including the racially problematic minstrelsy and “coon” songs genres, classic blues woman Ma Rainey, “red-hot mamas,” and flappers/coquettes. It is as excellent a review of pre-jazz popular singing as you’ll find. He primarily cites Ethel Waters, big band jazz singer Mildred Bailey, and cabaret diva Mabel Mercer as key influences from these eras on Holiday. He also explores the long held perception of Holiday as the quintessential torch singer comparing her to Libby Holman, Helen Morgan, and Edith Piaf. For those unfamiliar with this period his discussion is a convincing sketch, but even the most knowledgeable readers will learn something new and find Szwed’s intriguing discussion points stirring.

 The remaining three Chapters illuminate multiple, aspects of Holiday’s formidable technique. More than anything he illustrates why the greatest compliment instrumentalists and critics can offer jazz singers is to label them as musicians. He outlines her career in phases noting her role as a “jazz musician” at Columbia in swing-oriented small groups, as a “straight jazz singer” at Commodore Records and Decca when jazz was gaining stature as an art in the early ‘40s, a classicist in her Verve/Clef Records phase where she revisited her signature songs and added new songs, and a kind of parlando singer on her final two albums where she relied more on recitative than ever.

 Among his observations are her skill at controlling tempo; her discriminating use of vibrato; her mastery of microphone technique; her ability to adapt and revise her influences (notably Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith); her ability to recompose songs through shifting her emphasis on certain consonants and stressing certain syllables seamlessly in her performances; a cross-rhythmic approach to time illustrated through a transcription of her 1945 performance of “What is This Thing Called Love?” on Decca;  exceptional diction; her ability to weave mutual melodic lines and solo with musicians without clashing harmonically (most notably with saxophonist Lester Young); and mostly, her consistent ability to trigger emotions among listeners.

 Central to his analysis of Holiday is distinguishing the notion of “good” jazz songs from the way the most skilled performers bring jazz to their material. He illustrates this most eloquently in describing the way Holiday’s interpretation of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” improves the song. Notably, her version entails “detuning the melody, shifting the rhythmic accents around, and ignoring the moderator tempo indicated on the song’s original sheet music” (140) which established the blueprint for subsequent versions. Szwed also provides an array of examples of similar feats including Holiday’s subtle gestures on “It’s like reaching for the moon” and more radical choices on “I’ll Get By.”

 In addition to harvesting these aspects of Holiday’s art he demonstrates a fine breath of knowledge and insight in discussing the controversial roots of signature Holiday songs like “Strange Fruit”; comparing multiple versions of songs Holiday recorded throughout her career; and discussing her last two albums extensively, among other topics.

 Szwed’s structure builds genuine suspense by establishing elements of Holiday’s character and intelligence carefully, and piquing your interest in how she approaches music. His wise decision to devote five of the book’s eight chapters to Holiday’s music as vividly and comprehensively as he does is a feat of sound research, original thinking, and skillful writing. Placing her music at the center of his discussion truly makes her shine as the subject. And fulfills his aim “to shift the focus to her art” rather than the well-worn “tribulations and tragedy of her life” (197). Reading Billie Holiday the book instantly makes you want to listen and re-listen to Holiday the singer; both are in glorious harmony.