Billie Holiday

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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.