Billie Holiday

When Stuart Nicholson’s biography of Billie Holiday was published in the USA it was nominated a "Notable Book of the Year" by The New York Times Review of Books and praised by Pulitzer Prize winner for Music, composer Ned Norem, for its musical insights. Here, prompted by the release of Verve’s Billie Holiday: The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes, Nicholson reflects on the enduring artistry of the singer they called Lady Day, talks about how he discovered some of the previously unknown facts he discovered researching her life and discusses the sensational conclusion he came to after his book was published.
The polarities of art and life, once carefully separated by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics, collided with such violence during the 44 years of singer Billie Holiday’s life they became bonded into one immutable whole. Together they give force to the Billie Holiday legend, a legend that has grown with increasing definition since her death in 1959. Although a sense of sadness and waste provide the backdrop for her troubled yet colourful life, that life is ultimately redeemed by the joy, the passion and, in her final years, the pathos of her music.
Yet standing back from this simmering life engaged to disaster, it is impossible not to reflect that it is not so much what happens to us, as how we handle what happens us, that decides our fortune. Billie’s great rival, Ella Fitzgerald, had to endure a family background and social conditions not greatly different from Holiday’s; two years younger, Fitzgerald was almost certainly sexually abused as a child – as was Holiday – and both hung around whorehouses in early adolescence. Each was the product of a broken home, each suffered years of poverty and each stared racism square in the face in 1930s, 1940s and 1950s apartheid America. Yet Fitzgerald worked her way to Beverly Hills luxury and was still singing into the 1990s, while Holiday, who was never able to come to terms with her personal demons, died in poverty in 1959.
From her early teens Billie Holiday associated marijuana and alcohol with good times. As a young woman she lived it up with a vengeance. Yet she found it within herself to create a series of enduring jazz classics during the 1930s in the company of pianist Teddy Wilson and some of the finest jazz musicians of the day for the Brunswick label including, ‘I Wished on the Moon,’ ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do,’ ‘I Cried for You’ and ‘This Years Kisses.’
Both with Teddy Wilson and under her own name for the Vocalion label she also created a series of recordings with Lester Young on tenor saxophone that see a degree of mutual inspiration that epitomizes jazz at its highest level of creativity - ‘Sun Showers,’ ‘I’ll Get By,’ ‘Me Myself and I,’ ‘A Sailboat in the Moonlight,’ ‘He’s Funny That Way,’ ‘When You’re Smiling,’ ‘Back In Your Own Backyard’ and ‘All of Me.’ These recordings, together with the Brunswick recordings with Wilson, available on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, reveal a singer of broad emotional range able to narrow her focus at will, able to seize the pressure points of a song to reshape it so profoundly that once heard, it goes on to enjoy a second life, a life within memory; indeed many songs from this period are truly unforgettable.

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website

If you do not change browser settings, you consent to continue. Learn more

I understand

Featured Artists

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
Prev Next
John Etheridge interview: “We never got paid for Soft Machine. God knows what happened to the money”

John Etheridge interview: “We never got …

AJ Dehany caught up with Soft Machine’s John Etheridge and spoke to him about his formative fretboard influences and approaches to guitar playing, as well as penetrating the complex chronology...

Read More.....
Introducing: Quincy Jones’ Qwest TV

Introducing: Quincy Jones’ Qwest TV

Quincy Jones is many things – a 27-time Grammy award winner, TV and movie producer, actor, record company head honcho, magazine founder, and arranger and music producer of the biggest...

Read More.....
Life-changing jazz albums: 'Charlie Parker with Strings'

Life-changing jazz albums: 'Charlie Park…

Keyboard-player Lonnie Liston Smith talks about the album that changed his life, Charlie Parker With Strings, by Charlie Parker. Interview by Brian Glasser I know the one straight away – it...

Read More.....
Life-changing jazz albums: 'Sunday at the Village Vanguard' by the Bill Evans Trio

Life-changing jazz albums: 'Sunday at th…

Bassist Miroslav Vitous talks about the album that changed his life, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, by the Bill Evans Trio. Interview by Brian Glasser The one album for me goes...

Read More.....
Life-changing jazz albums: 'Spiritual Unity' by the Albert Ayler Trio

Life-changing jazz albums: 'Spiritual Un…

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings talks about the album that changed his life, Spiritual Unity, by the Albert Ayler Trio. Interview by Brian Glasser It was really easy for me to decide: Albert...

Read More.....
Life-changing jazz albums: Miles Davis' 'In A Silent Way'

Life-changing jazz albums: Miles Davis' …

Clarinettist Arun Ghosh talks about the album that changed his life, In A Silent Way, by Miles Davis. Interview by Brian Glasser I first heard this when I was 20 or...

Read More.....
Binker & Moses: twin peaks

Binker & Moses: twin peaks

The debut long-player, Dem Ones, from young-gun sax and drums duo Binker & Moses, garnered the prodigious pair some serious critical heat. Their forthright improv-heavy, beat-fuelled approach has also resonated...

Read More.....
Christian Scott interview: “Not everyone in America enjoys the same type of freedom”

Christian Scott interview: “Not everyone…

New Orleans-born trumpeter Christian Scott has emerged over the last decade as a leading figure in the vanguard of younger musicians bringing jazz to a wider audience. Drawing on his...

Read More.....
Such Sweet Thunder: inside Duke Ellington's literary world

Such Sweet Thunder: inside Duke Ellingto…

A crucial but frequently overlooked aspect of Duke Ellington's creative life was his engagement with literature. From Shakespeare to Steinbeck, Ellington's love of the written word inspired much of his...

Read More.....

Subcribe To Jazzwise

Advertisement

Call 0800 137201 to subscribe or click here to email the subscriptions team

Get in touch

Jazzwise Magazine,
St. Judes Church,
Dulwich Road, 
Herne Hill,
London, SE24 0PD.

0208 677 0012

Latest Tweets

@MusicClerk I can relate. Someone in my local Morley's was saying that Rubicon hits levels above Fanta. Bullshit be crazy.
Follow Us - @Jazzwise
Office Listening: Favourite Animals. Some of the top creative creatures percolating around the UK's meta jazz pipes… https://t.co/dlSV7Bl8Ot
Follow Us - @Jazzwise

Newsletter

Sign up to the Jazzwise monthly E-Newsletter

 

© 2016 MA Business & Leisure Ltd registered in England and Wales number 02923699 Registered office: Jesses Farm, Snow Hill, Dinton, Salisbury, SP3 5HN . Designed By SE24 MEDIA