Yesterday would have marked the 98th birthday of Elanora Fagan aka Billie Holiday. Perhaps no single Jazz vocalist has had the impact on the genre of Jazz music then she did. From her humble beginnings of singing along to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records as a child to her untimely death at age 44 and the success and hardships she had in between, there is no question that Holiday was (and still is) one of the most well known Jazz performers. I was introduced to Holiday as a young man, and had a copy of Strange Fruit: The Best of the Verve Years which I pretty much wore out. Although I remember the bio pic Lady Sings The Blues as a child, until I was a bit older, I couldn’t understood the impact Billie Holiday had on music. It wasn’t until I was a student of music, where I grabbed every bit of info on Jazz in particular that I could get a hold of, as well as all kinds of music, that it started to make sense. When I discovered that my passion for music (with a focus on the foundations of Hip Hop: Jazz, Funk, Soul, Reggae) and eventually dug deeper into the vault of American Jazz, it was then and only then that I could truly understand a performer like Billie Holiday. She people played music because that was her passion, and her passion was her life. Yes, she were talented, but not at all immune from living the hard life of alcohol and drugs that fame (along with unhappiness can bring). Her rigorous schedules and travelling required extra fuel for her musical fire, and while I don’t condone that lifestyle, I can only say that her lifestyle made her what she was. If you listen closely to songs like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” where she proclaims: “I’m just going to do what I want to….anyway, and don’t care what people say” and “go to church on Sunday, then cabaret all day Monday”, you get a good sense that Lady Day did what she wanted to. Her songs of love lost and heartache illustrate the hardships she encountered in her four decades on this earth. Her rape, prostitution, the lifestyle brought unto her by her mother were not a choice, and this sadness and struggle we hear every time she opens her mouth. In the end, it was no doubt that her hard living and abusive relationships contributed to her untimely death. However, it’s not to say that there wasn’t some sunshine in an other words stormy career of hers. Her early stints with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and then her later success with “Strange Fruit” on the Commodore label (when other majors decided the subject was too taboo) and “God Bless The Child”, “Trav’lin Light” were just but a few of the bright lights (along with other successes) in her short career that eventually made her a legend. It’s no secret Billie Holiday led a hard, sometimes unthinkable life by today’s standards, but the legacy she left behind is something that is never going away. She held the torch high for African American women to be something when there were rules that said they couldn’t. This torch was picked up by a young Nina Simone, who like Holiday endured her own hardships, and went on carrying the spirit of Holiday to make a lasting impression and leave a legacy for the next one and the next one, and the next one. Billie Holiday’s music still resonates today on many levels. You can hear the shakiness in her vocals, the at sometimes underlying cry for help, but then it’s wrapped up in this tough, sturdy package that can’t be penetrated by any one. She was searching for something, whether it be love or escape from loneliness and heartache, it’s all there in her songs. In the end though, there’s the reassurance from her that this is where she wanted to be, and it was nobody’s business but hers.
Happy Birthday Lady Day.
There is a great exhibit at The Whitney here in NYC called Blues For Smoke that features some Billie Holiday photographs from Roy DeDeCarava as well as some really great music inspired art. Highly Recommended.