I listen to a lot of Billie Holiday. This, given the fact that she’s ubiquitous (as a friend once said a few years ago, explaining why he liked her but rarely sought out her recordings, “She’s kind of like the Beatles”), part of the coffee-chain soundtrack for the 21st century (not sayin’ that that’s necessarily a bad thing either). It’s partly that Holiday was one of the first jazz singers I fell in love with; I used to bicycle miles and miles to an LP store in Indianapolis to buy the Columbia Quintessential volumes as they were being released, and those early sides are forever associated in my mind with being 23 and on the verge of summertime–seemingly in a perpetual state similar to how she sang, “Life begins, when you’re in love… you have the world, before you…” It’s sticky-warm and dark out, you’re sitting on some steps somewhere with a cold beer-bottle in hand, and everything, pleasure and pain included, seems possible.
So certain Holiday recordings feel etched into my DNA, like “Long Gone Blues,” an oft-overlooked gem she did in 1939 around the same time as “Some Other Spring,” the ballad co-written by her good friend Irene Kitchings (we explored the mystery of Irene Kitchings and the music she wrote for Billie in the program Ghosts of Yesterday: Billie Holiday and the Two Irenes). There’s something very inviting about Holiday’s singing, throughout the whole span of her career, but especially in the youthfully vibrant Columbia recordings that are about to be released as a 4-CD set; it’s an emotional immediacy, conveyed with such deft artfulness (during “Falling in Love Again” she sings “gee, I can’t help it” almost as if it’s a conversational aside delivered while she’s strolling down the sidewalk with a friend) that too many fans and writers have been tempted to categorize her as a “natural,” as Robert O’Meally’s book Lady Day: the Many Faces of Billie Holiday points out.
No doubt that she did possess a wealth of “natural” talent, but she nurtured that talent through hard listening to Bessie Smith, hard listening to Louis Armstrong, and hard work at the street and club level. She puts her songs across so gracefully that it’s easy to graft one’s own personal stories onto what she’s singing. Perhaps too easy; sometimes I think Holiday is one of the most over-interpreted and yet still-not-quite-understood artists jazz history has ever been privileged with. Whatever it is, or was, she still reaches people.
One of my favorite Billie Holiday records is Solitude. Released in 1952, first as a 10-inch and then a 12-inch LP, in my mind it’s one of the singer’s best efforts for Verve, curiously overlooked in her general output. (The 1957 sessions with Ben Webster, which I also love, seem to get much more attention.) Musicians on the date include Flip Phillips, Charlie Shavers, Barney Kessel, Oscar Peterson, and Alvin Stoller. I’m a fan of Holiday’s work all the way up to the end (the MGM session Last Recording–Marc Myers put up a revealing post about that album the other day)–but on Solitude her voice seems to have much of the Verve-era character while retaining more of her technique. I particularly enjoy hearing her re-visit “These Foolish Things,” which she had first recorded in the 1930s; of the remake Martin Williams would later write,
She retains the original song’s best melodic phrases, but instinctively rejects its inferior ones, filling in with new melodic lines of her own that are more interesting and more appropriate. In her earlier version…she had similarly spotted its inferior moments but she was still a bit intimidated by them, and rather than come up with new melodic phrases of her own…she had used simple blues phrases to avoid them… (in the 1952 version) she virtually rewrites the song’s A section into a deceptively complex melody of her own.
Other highlights for me include the title track, “You Turned the Tables On Me,” “Love for Sale,” “If the Moon Turns Green,” and “Autumn in New York.” There’s such a mood to this album; it almost feels like a concept record, something akin to what Sinatra would be doing on Capitol very shortly. (Interesting, too, that Holiday was one of the first performers to inspire tribute albums.)
One last note, concerning the Sony/Legacy Billie Holiday Remixed and Reimagined CD that was recently released, featuring a number of the original Columbia recordings with modern effects, music, and raps laid on top. This hiphop Holiday record, as it were, has been roundly trashed by people whom I greatly respect… and their complaints are not without some validity. Most jazz fans tend to look aghast upon such efforts, as if the sacred texts of the music we love are being tampered with, as if a kind of aesthetic blasphemy is being performed. Myself, I always want to like these CDs, and inevitably find myself enjoying two or three tracks and pretty much dismissing the other dozen or so. I don’t find the concept repugnant in and of itself; just as bop musicians broke up and reframed, reharmonized theater and popular songs, so have turntable artists broken up and reframed prior musical work. Admittedly, though, much of what’s on the Billie Holiday Remixed cd (and the recent Nina Simone entry as well) is a bit lame, and not even exactly up to its own times when it comes to DJ sound art. But when it works, I think it’s exciting and even sometimes revelatory–on the Holiday project “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” comes off particularly well, even if it doesn’t deviate much conceptually from the original, and restores the sense of Billie Holiday coming out of a gangster, pimp-filled urban culture nevertheless rife with vitality, as opposed to drifting dreamily out of the overhead speakers at a Starbucks.
At least two generations have grown up now with hiphop and rap as significant bases of musical knowledge and experience. That reality is still shaking itself out in the jazz world, with potentially interesting and consequential implications. Things ain’t what they used to be, for better or for worse. Proud as Billie Holiday was of her art, I don’t know that she would necessarily reject out of hand the notion of mixing up some of her old recordings. It’s all in the execution, of course, and some executions are the kind that leave death in their wake. Billie Holiday is a ghost that lives through her recordings, however we may choose to dress them up, either via technological trickery or the aesthetic patterns of our own minds and ears. All those records she left behind, all those musical portraits that are the furthest thing from still-lifes… what a little moonlight can do for you. Love you, Lady Day.
Addendum: the third-ever Night Lights program, The Day Lady Died, is now posted for online listening. It includes music from the entire span of Holiday’s career, comments from friends and musical colleagues Mal Waldron and Lester Young, and Frank O’Hara reading his poem “The Day Lady Died.”