Celebrating Lady Day: Billie Holiday is 100

The very first time I heard Billie Holiday, I was impressionable teenager and even without knowing anything about her notorious biography "Lady Sings the Blues" or the cinematic version of it, I was immediately smitten with music and that unforgettable, floating, dreamy voice coming out from another era. The album I got was just one of the countless compilations released after her death, this particular LP was published by "Everest Archive Of Folk & Jazz Music" and according to Internet it was 1983 so I must have been around fourteen. There was a cartoonish collage if Lady's famous face, Gardenia and all - very stylized, kind of gives you just idea what she looked like but no real human portrait. For one thing, judging by this cover you wouldn't even tell her skin color. I am aware of all this today but back than it served me very well because it send me away flying in daydreaming, there were countless afternoons spent alone with Lady. The very first song on that LP was her version of "My Man" - elegant piano introduction, than slowly her murmur emerges, very intimately and softly, a few seconds and you are hooked for life. The rest of the collection was hodgepodge - heartbreaking strings on "Lover Man" and "Don't Explain" next to much earlier "I Cover the Waterfront" and bouncy "Them There eyes", Duke's "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" and joyful "Swing, Brother Swing" - all of them in really  bad, muffled mono sound (I heard them in far better, clearer versions since) which of course made it even more precious to me (could this be the start of my obsession with old recordings?). It was magic and it is magic still - I have been listened Billie Holiday ever since and with occasional detours to different music genres, I always come back to my greatest loves. In fact, I don't even have to listen her music because it is so deeply etched in my heart.

Billie would have been hundred had she lived. Alas, she died only forty four (Elvis was forty two) and was arrested and fingerprinted on her deathbed in New York's hospital - a final escape from police, jail and life full of humiliations. It is very interesting to note how her name basically tells two different stories: Billie Holiday as a living, breathing person who was a top Jazz star of her times and internationally beloved by her fans, another Billie Holiday who emerges post-1959 as a myth and lives on ever since in recollections, music encyclopedias, movies, novels and tribute albums. Ask any Jazz singer and they will tell you they caught Billie bug sometime in their youth. Why Billie and not somebody else, after all there were literary hundreds of talented people during 1930s, 1940s and 1950s who worked in the same places, with same musicians and even performed same songs: could it be that her dramatic life story appeals far more than, for example, sunny and successful Ella? I think its actually combination of two factors: almost cinematic horror of sad, lonely and troubled life + beautiful, magical music that reflected it. 

What appealed to me back than - tragedy, racism, escape in alcohol and drugs, abusive lovers and so on - I see it little differently now with a cynical 40+ perspective but I understand that it created brilliant artist for whom music and singing was natural, instinctive cry of the heart. Had she lived different life, had she had protection of today's stars (producers, managers, hairdressers, fashion stylists), had she been pampered, she would have been different person - but she did it all herself, it was film noir all the way. I always get worked up when people associate Billie Holiday with that stupid movie, Gardenia and drugs - its all just an impression, there was so much more to her. Basically, you can find several different faces of same woman, if you care to do some research:
Columbia years: young, bouncy and happy Billie Holiday recorded for "Columbia" (1933-1942) and this is my favorite chapter. She was literary glowing in presence of best Jazz musicians and they created one masterpiece after another, often out from silly pop hits of the day. Commodore Records: this is when sassy nightclub singer turns into high art chanteuse, "Strange Fruit" being the moment when image took over the spontaneous joy of jam sessions. 
Decca Records: absolutely beautiful and classic, true film noir recordings from 1942 to 1950s. Here she is a torch singer of heartbreaking ballads. "Lover Man", "Don't Explain", "That Ole Devil Called Love" and such.
Verve Records and beyond: the most notorious chapter, I am not absolutely sure that I love this because it kind of damages my previous perception of Lady. Here she is already damaged beyond repair and slowly sinks in depression and despair. I know some people are fascinated with the sound of alcoholic junkie on these recordings and I always tell myself I will give them proper listening one day but I tend to gravitate towards younger, happier and sensuous self.

As you can feel from these lines, I am against public image of sad, boozy nightclub singer with Gardenia in her hair - it sounds like a good novel and there were many books written about her, but besides one-dimensional cartoon perception there is a beautiful music still lingering on. It is not something shared, hers is music of solitary pleasure when listener is alone with himself. Like some beautiful piece of art, her legend lives on and it will probably live much longer - original spark that started it all has gone decades ago (she has been dead longer than alive at this point) but it continues to touch and affect new listeners constantly. Happy Birthday, Lady, wherever you are.

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