Thursday, July 23, 2009

Billie Holiday Fifty Years Later: A Tribute and Reassessment

Fifty years ago, on July 17, 1959, Billie Holiday died an untimely death at age 44 in a New York hospital from complications of drug and alcohol dependency. Now, half a century after her passing, it is an appropriate hommage to reflect once again on her legacy as a singer, an African American woman, a victim-- of a traumatic childhood, spousal abuse, and substance dependence--and a powerful creative force for the times she lived in. Though less of a "pop star" (and much more of a true artist) than the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday is equally an icon of American music, and her legacy is timeless.

Holiday almost disingenuously re-shaped American popular and jazz singing, and in so doing she contributed to the transition from swing to modern jazz, from big bands to the small group formats that have dominated the jazz scene ever since. I say "disingenuous" because she came up and learned music by listening to records and then doing some rather thankless club and road work. She acquired her style from recordings of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and others. She was not part of any movement or trend. In spite of this, she beautifully bridged the gap between the "blues" style of African-American singers and players and the white-dominated "swing" that came into vogue around the time she began her career. If you listen to her 1930's recordings with Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and other swing musicians, you can hear her break through the formulaic rhythms and riffs of the era, going her own way with a song, yet somehow blending seamlessly with her backup musicians. It was perhaps this synergy of musical styles, in addition to her soulful beauty, that so impressed saxophonist Lester Young that he famously called her "Lady Day," and which enabled him to interweave his solos flawlessly with her singing on their priceless recordings together.


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