Tuesday, April 7, 2015

This Day in Jazz History (Billie Holiday, Vocal Alchemist of Heartache, Born)

April 7, 1915—The circumstances of birth represent the elementary facts of life—and, increasingly, the most documented. But even the birth of Eleanora Fagan—better known as Billie Holiday—is subject to dispute. It began a life that, at first, was endlessly recounted in the annals of notoriety, but, more recently, just as frequently deconstructed.

Was she, in fact, born in Baltimore, as claimed in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, or in Philadelphia, as an unearthed birth certificate seems to show? Did her parents wait some time after her birth to wed—or did they do so at all? Did her sexual life encompass being nearly raped at age 10, teenage prostitution, abortion, and three marriages—or did it extend to bisexuality?

The list of these biographical disputes goes on and on. In the end, what remains incontestable about “Lady Day” are not the facts of her life but the fruits of her artistry—her legacy, if you will.

That legacy, I think, was not something I delved into to any great extent in my prior post on Holiday, which took, as its occasion, the poet Frank O’Hara’s elegy on her death in July 1959 at age 44. My post considered Holiday’s impact in literature and film, but not within the realm where her effect was most significant: music.

That legacy involves more than a few imitators. Several years ago, I was listening to a young singer I had never encountered before. But as I closed my eyes and took it all in, I knew that I had heard that voice before. “Does she have to be so derivative?” I thought. “Just what we need—someone else to channel her inner Billie Holiday.”

I shouldn’t have been so uncharitable. No matter what the field—music, literature, the visual arts—creative types look, inevitably, to someone who can light a way for them. There was no danger, in any case, that Holiday’s example could be followed in all particulars. Hers might not have been the most full-bodied or durable voice in jazz, but it was the most distinctive—and, sadly, the most fragile. Her example still beckons, even as it warns.

Perhaps the artist who acknowledged her most insistently and generously was “The Voice” himself, Frank Sinatra, who noted in 1958, a year before her death: "Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years."

He knew a kindred spirit—another vocal alchemist of heartache— when he saw one. In his superb essay collection, Visions of Jazz: The First Century, critic Gary Giddins identifies Holiday's limitations exactly (“a thin voice and a range of about fifteen notes”), but also how she made each song her own, in a way that must have struck Sinatra full force: “She embellished melodies, tailoring them to her own needs and limitations; lagged behind the beat, imparting suspense; harmonized well above the range of composition, projecting a bright authority; and inflected words in a way that made even banal lyrics bracing.”

In other words, Holiday injected drama into all that she touched—not merely a searing indictment of the American shame of lynching (“Strange Fruit”), but also purely individual despair (“Everything Happens to Me”). Don’t believe that Sinatra, the quintessential singer-actor, didn’t notice.

Holiday was already well into her own prolonged travails—drug addiction and New York’s refusal of a cabaret card, which meant she could never again play in a Gotham room that served liquor—when Sinatra hit his own professional and personal nadir. In Holiday’s case, substance abuse produced a voice that, while as expressive (and, in some cases, more so) as before, was also more ravaged, in something like the same process experienced by another addict, British rock ‘n’ roller Marianne Faithfull, in the late 1970s before her Broken English LP.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sinatra’s reverses were also severe, so much so that he attempted suicide. In those years, he was let go of his movie contract by MGM; saw his teenage audience age and diminish; bridled at the insistence of Columbia Records exec Mitch Miller that he sing light pop tunes rather than the Great American Songbook repertoire that he preferred; and went through the wringer in his affair and short-lived marriage with Ava Gardner.

In this period, Sinatra’s throat, taxed to its limit by overwork and hard living, hemorrhaged, forcing him into complete rest for 40 days. When he reemerged, the sweet, smooth tone of his teenybopper years was gone.

It was at that moment, I would suggest, that Sinatra glimpsed an alternative offered by the example of Holiday. Even early in her career, she was able to overcome the vocal limitations underscored by Giddins through interpreting a song. That would become Sinatra’s stock in trade, too, now that he was up against a career wall. 

What he would lose in purity of tone, he would replace—and then some—with a raspiness, an edge, that imparted infinite knowledge of the entire emotional scale. It enabled him to try on successive roles: the lover all too familiar with loneliness (“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”), the confident swinger with the wind at his back (“I’ve Got the World on a String”), and the bruised but unbowed survivor (“My Way”).

In no small part because of this mid-career makeover, Sinatra emerged from his personal ordeal to live for nearly another 50 years, rich and lionized, with a new generation of singers beating a path to his door for two late-career “Duets” CDs. Holiday ended up broke at the bank, broken in spirit—and, because of the toxic nature of her legal troubles, unable to acknowledge or call again on those who could have helped her. (John Szwed’s new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, describes how, for legal reasons, she was forced to delete from Lady Sings the Blues any detailed discussion of friendships with Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Laughton and Orson Welles).

The recent death of cabaret singer Julie Wilson, in contrast, offered a reminder of someone unapologetic about what she saw in Holiday. “No singer has ever moved me so much,” she told New Yorker music critic Whitney Balliett in a 1987 interview. “No one has ever had such pain and emotion in her singing. She is why I wear a gardenia in my hair every night.” (That gardenia, as well as the characteristic head thrown back mid-performance, is why I chose the image accompanying this post.)

In the run-up to her centennial, other female singers with very different vocal timbre have nevertheless paid tribute to Holiday, including Audra McDonald (Lanie Robertson's one-person play, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill), and Cassandra Wilson (the CD Coming Forth By Day).

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