While interviewing Billie Holiday in 1944, New York Post columnist Earl Wilson mentioned that Frank Sinatra, a recently minted superstar, had cited her as a deep influence on his singing. “I told him that he didn’t phrase right,” Billie Holiday recalled saying to her fellow 1915 baby four years before, when both were performing in Chicago. “I told him he should bend certain notes. He said, ‘Lady, you aren’t commercial.’ But later he said I inspired him. Bending those notes — that’s all I helped Frankie with.”
The incident appears midway through John Szwed’s pithy, information-packed meditation Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, which buttresses the author’s assertion that Holiday and Sinatra “are the only singers still fully alive to us from over sixty years ago, still attracting biographical interest.” It’s the seventh consequential exploration of Holiday to appear since 1991, when Robert O’Meally — Szwed’s predecessor as director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University — published Lady Day: the Many Faces of Billie Holiday Himself the author of authoritative biographies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, and Alan Lomax, Szwed eschews a cradle-to-grave narrative for an approach that refracts Holiday’s essence through two prisms. The opening section is a fascinating forensic exegesis of the initial and final drafts of Holiday’s ghostwritten 1956 memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, that is the Ur-text of all Holiday studies. What percentage of “the events and dates in the book were wrong, or worse, possibly fabricated”? To what degree were these “lies and exaggerations… largely matters of interpretation, childhood memories, and slips of fact” and not “the sort of self-serving rewritings of personal history common in many autobiographies of the famous”? Was the party primarily responsible for the portrait of the artist contained therein Holiday or her co-writer, William Dufty? Was Holiday the tragic, passive, victimized figure portrayed by Diana Ross in the 1972 film adaptation of Lady Sings the Blues?
The second half is a nuanced exploration of Holiday’s musical mojo and its effect. She modeled herself, Szwed writes, on “the style of Louis Armstrong and the feeling of Bessie Smith, style perhaps meaning the way Armstrong sang, his technique, and feeling being the emotions awakened by Smith’s singing.” Her rhythmic acumen, her phrasing, her use of “sliding pitches [to] convey emotions like surprise, happiness and sorry” attracted and inspired such contemporaneous singers as Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, and Anita O’Day; next-generation exemplars like Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter and Dee Dee Bridgewater; current stars like the late Amy Winehouse, Audra McDonald, Macy Gray, Madeleine Peyroux, and Cassandra Wilson. (Both Wilson and up-and-comer Jose James, by the way, exploit her centenary with tribute recordings timed to coincide with the April 7th centenary of the artist known as Lady Day.)
Throughout his portrait of a Lady, Szwed draws judiciously on an extraordinary archive of 150 interviews conducted at the cusp of the ’70s by Linda Kuehl for a prospective, never-completed biography. The transcripts contain ample first-person testimony on the horrific particulars of Holiday’s childhood; her otherworldly musical skills; her personal warmth, often expressed through creatively deployed profanity; her masochism; her temper and willingness to kick ass when required; her rejection of self-pity; her uninhibited sexuality; her propensity for ingesting large quantities of alcohol, marijuana, and, eventually, heroin, which led to her status as a surveilled and prosecuted target of law enforcement during the last decade and a half of her life.
The more salacious contents of Kuehl’s material first surfaced in popular music historian Donald Clarke’s 1993 cradle-to-grave biography Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday, which suffers only from the author’s excessive use of amateur psychoanalyzing and sociological generalization in attempting to explain Holiday’s behavior. In With Billie from 2005, Julia Blackburn uses the transcripts to construct chapters on the various testifiers — lovers, musicians, managers, detectives, doctors — whose diverse perspectives cohere into a convincing portrait of the artist. (British jazz historian Stuart Nicholson did not have an opportunity to consult the Kuehl conversations in researching his exhaustive, just-the-facts 1995 opus, Billie Holiday, which incorporates consequential clip research from the contemporaneous African-American press.)
David Margolick’s Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights is a monograph discussing the political milieu surrounding Holiday’s bombshell 1939 recording of the song in question, while Farah Jasmine Griffin’s If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery, published in 2001, deconstructs the various “dominant myths” engendered by Holiday’s packaging and representation.
For Holiday’s centenary, the Barnes & Noble Review asked both Szwed and Griffin — faculty colleagues at Columbia until Szwed stepped down from his post after the 2013−14 academic year — to discuss their favorite Holiday recordings. —Ted Panken
* * *
The Barnes & Noble Review: What prompted you to take on Billie Holiday?
John Szwed: First of all, my editor, Rick Cott, who likes to put out music books when he can, said, “Why not a book on Billie Holiday?” My answer was, “What’s left to know?” He said, “You could look into that.” That was a temptation, because editors don’t always say that sort of thing. So I started looking.
Everyone said that Lady Sings the Blues wasn’t reliable. The standard pitch was to seek to find blame in William Dufty; I thought that co-writing process was interesting. I discovered the executor of Dufty’s estate, who gave me access to materials that weren’t in print, plus a lot of things Dufty wrote — nine articles in the New York Post, for example — that no one cared to read. Then I saw the draft of the first version of Lady Sings the Blues before it was cut for fear of litigation. Not nearly as much was cut as people thought. That was interesting, too. With Billie had just come out, and the availability of Kuehl’s interviews was tempting, too.
I couldn’t see doing another biography. I’ve gotten to be really weary of writing them. But I thought her music had been given too light a treatment. Her discography had become her autobiography; everyone was reading this life through the songs. But I didn’t want to do a whole book of trekking through the songs. I wanted to do both — put out the new things I had and try to make it work.
BNR: You write about Billie Holiday’s construction of a character, a stage persona. Having gone through this process, how true to life do you think that stage persona was?
JS: I talk about singers as actors, which is true. I guess everyone knows it, but people tend not to keep their mind on it. Most people didn’t walk out of some Brando play thinking that Brando was his character. There’s certainly some of that in TV. She was doing torch singers, who present a particular persona — it goes with their stuff. Whether that was true to life is tough to say. She certainly wanted to sing songs she felt. The key line, which I could never resolve, was her remark, “There are songs that I just can’t sing because they’re so personal or they hurt so much.” One of them might have been something like “Love for Sale,” which she only recorded once and didn’t sing much live. Except she gives it such a jaunty little treatment, so I’m not sure what to say about it.
True to life? In an actor’s sense, yes. But she could turn on the dime, come off the stage and be a totally different person. She was hardly like Audra McDonald’s portrayal in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill or Dee Dee Bridgewater’s in Lady Day, where they’re crying in their beers as they sing and slurring their speech. She was very funny.
BNR: You portray very well how fluidly she moved among all strata of society.
JS: A musician I know went to the hospital once and ended up in the room where Billie died. As he talked to nurses who had worked there, the more contradictions emerged. She was the most brilliant woman they’d ever met; she had the mentality of a fifth grader. I ran into that all over the place. Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem and Roger Kirkpatrick, classical guys, thought she was brilliant musically.
BNR: You also write about her very intimate relationship with Tallulah Bankhead and about Elizabeth Hardwick’s infatuation. There are interactions with Charles Laughton and George Raft, and an affair with Orson Welles.
JS: To think of a woman who was black and working-class (or even lower than working-class) moving in those circles with such ease is absolutely phenomenal, although she was extremely shy about meeting such people. That’s why I’m hesitant to say I really know this woman. That’s why I’m leery of biographies. Life is never lived like biographies are written. Anybody can redo a biography, I think, with a lot of research effort. And they are infinitely redoable.
Originally, this book was going to be beyond my writing chops. It was going to be doing the lives of Linda Kuehl and Billie running together. Linda Kuehl was a really accomplished person. She wrote for the Times, reviewed fiction for the Saturday Review and Commonweal, and taught at CUNY. She also interviewed authors for Paris Review, like Eudora Welty and Joan Didion — the Didion interview ran after she killed herself, and Didion wrote a preface stating that Kuehl was the best interviewer she’d ever met. Kuehl had several problems in writing her prospective biography, but the biggest one was that she got completely tied up with Billie’s early years in Baltimore. That was also a problem, I thought, with the biographies by Clarke and Stuart Nicholson — you assume there’s something about your experience when you’re young that’s going to make you what you are.
BNR: Let’s get to the songs. What’s your first pick?
JS: Just to get it out of the way, “Strange Fruit.“ Some of these songs can have little books written about them, and David Margolick wrote one about that. It’s basically a long article. He did good work, but I had access to materials he didn’t have. The litigation issue about authorship of the song was fascinating from several directions, partly because it raised the question of what a singer or musician owns. Things like the status of a solo are still not clear legally. Dufty defended her claim that she had created the song, because the arrangement was so radically different from the written version. She said in print that she was talking about the arrangement. That should have settled that. But then Barney Josephson (proprietor of Café Society where Holiday debuted “Strange Fruit”) said she didn’t understand the lyric, and so forth. Dufty answers the whole lot of them, that this is what she felt all her life, and that the book was supposed to show she wasn’t this dumb black girl with bare feet from Baltimore who didn’t understand anything. In fact, the FBI was even after her, asking: “Where did this song come from? Did the Communist Party ask you to write it?” Dufty remarks that she could have said, “I don’t know nothing about that; I don’t understand,” and done a faux Marion Anderson spiritual, and they’d probably have given her cabaret card back.”
It’s hard to imagine an analogy right now of a song that would produce the kind of shock “Strange Fruit” did. We’re supposed to be beyond that. “Strange Fruit” frightened everyone. Holiday’s performance was absolutely flat-faced, minimal gesture, minimal anything, with some pointed diction, popping some letters loudly and so forth. A kind of objective observation of something, as if she was talking about something she’d seen. Of course in the film, Lady Sings the Blues, they fake a scene where she does see a lynching, and then proceed to cut out part of the song as too rough. Astonishing.
Another one that bears a small book, I suppose, is “God Bless the Child.” It has the kind of iconic status of “Imagine,” with that same quality of “Who the hell knows what’s going on in this song, and why is it being played at funerals and church services, and, for all I know, bar-mitzvahs and whatever?” The story is absolutely minimal, and it’s got an almost religious feel I cannot explain. She said she got it from the Bible, but it’s not there. I don’t know what people are imagining in that song. She said she did it because she was angry at her mother, and I’ll take her word for that. It makes you want to hear anger once you know that. But I don’t think it’s really there. It’s the same feeling as “Strange Fruit,” with this kind of objective distancing.
By the way, when you read the Kuehl interviews, you find Billie’s childhood is much worse than it looks. That was part of the problem of doing a biography; it can become a lot more like what Joyce Carol Oates called pathographies. Her mother moved her into a whorehouse in Harlem, and both of them were turning tricks. Does it get worse than that? I don’t know. I left out things. Her business card was to kiss someone on the mouth. Fans, whoever, they’d all get kissed. I didn’t go into detail about either George Wein’s and John Hammond’s comments that she was always suspicious of them because, as George said, “I didn’t like to ball” and, as Hammond said, “I wasn’t fucking my people.” I don’t think these things help with the singing at all.
The third tune? “No Regrets.“ I suppose you could say 90 percent of pop songs deal with regret in some way or another — either you didn’t do something or it happened or whatever. She takes the song at this brisk walking tempo; you don’t realize how bright it is until you hear someone else do it. I thought to take a song that’s about sadness, as pop songs often are, and to make it sound not-sad is daring.
I looked at Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” which has this huge orchestral fanfare with trumpets and the drums beating, and it goes way up at the end, which is very uncharacteristic of her. It’s like MGM. Then I found out about an attempted coup on Charles De Gaulle’s life around the Algerian war, and the officers involved were caught. They weren’t executed, but were put in jail, and the lesser soldiers in Algeria were sent into the French Foreign Legion. But they left Algeria singing that song. Since then, it’s been the Foreign Legion’s theme song. I thought that was funny, because that’s the way Piaf’s song sounds — “not only do I not regret it, but I’m triumphant in it.” Both Billie and Piaf had pretty miserable lives, although current biographies of Piaf say that she faked a lot of what she said about it. That includes her attempt to help Jews escape, which is shadowed by the fact that she lived two doors down from the S.S. and was hanging out there. It’s not true that she was found on the streets, that she had these diseases and so on.
No one pays attention to “No More,” by Toots Camarata and Bob Russell, with strikingly irregular harmony and vernacular lyrics. She departs from the melody with ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, straight bebop stuff. It forces the singer to be always aware that, when it reaches any kind of temporary resolution or resting point, it won’t rest where the ear expects it — or even the eye, maybe. The song is not a great song, I don’t think, but it’s extremely difficult to sing. She hits every note right, with no hesitancy. It’s the kind of song that tells you what a singer she was.
For “I’ll Get By,” I borrowed from Gunther Schuller’s The Swing Era in writing about her hitting the same note twenty-six times. Schuller has listened to Holiday harder than anyone else has. It’s astonishing to think of the speed at which they did those early recordings and how good the musicians were. There were no rehearsals, which is one reason why they were done so cheaply. But Billie always came prepared. That’s also the case with the Verve recordings, where some of the best stuff was done with no rehearsal, and they hadn’t even gone over her music beforehand. It’s hard to believe, but more than one of her pianists says so. They all say she had the best time of anybody.
I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time with Teddy Wilson’s role on these earlier recordings, because his playing is extraordinary. By the way, he stated late in life that he was never a fan of hers, that he actually preferred Barbra Streisand, which was stunning. He thought that Holiday was too derivative of Louis Armstrong, he didn’t like her ad-libbing and said her voice wasn’t pure enough. John Hammond said that everyone in the business thought he was crazy for hiring somebody whose voice was that impure. “You think people yelled when I hired Bob Dylan; you should have heard what they said about her,” he said. Dylan said the same thing in his recent talk at the Grammys.
Billie never really got to the top, and was often beaten out by people we would now think of as her far-inferiors, like Helen Forrest (in Artie Shaw’s Orchestra circa 1938). There’s no evidence that there was any animosity between her and Helen Forrest. Just the opposite. But the reason she left wasn’t because Shaw replaced her for not being as good as Forrest and Artie replaced her. Billie quit before Shaw replaced her and stayed on because he asked her to teach Forrest the songs. By the way, Helen Forrest’s book is good. She talks about singers all seeming to be wanton whores, and says, “Well, it’s true — a lot of people screwed the whole band, but we thought of it as family.” Then she goes into how she did it herself, with Harry James and all kinds of people. It’s an amazingly honest book, and given that she was still a big name when it came out, it’s all the more amazing. You can’t film a story like that.
BNR: You also trace her intersection with an interracial group of people who engaged in what today would be called “transgressive” behavior as part of their daily life.
JS: Yes, especially the cabaret crowd. Shane Vogel’s book The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance is an extensive treatment of how radical those cabarets were, artistically, socially, legally, and so on, and how they drew white people who went for sexual, intellectual, and musical liberation. I’d never understood before that they were in these after-hours clubs as much for white people as black. So I started to put a lot of thought into that whole scene — why those people were going to Harlem, what was happening, and how it fed back downtown. I try to avoid stories of people’s sexuality, because they are so contradictory, though I wanted to say more about Holiday. She did remark to several people, when asked about it, that when push comes to shove, she was finally interested in men. When they brought up women, one answer she would give is how woman singers were drawn together in a kind of defense — the people they could trust in the business they were in. She also said, “With women, I was always the man.” It takes you into the question of what are the definitions here.
I wrote of “I’ll Be Seeing You” that it’s so slow, it seemed she was using every word as a phrase. Drummers say that slow drumming is the hardest thing of all, because you can’t count slow. I was fascinated with the idea of how slow can you sing before the words come apart? I thought about Thelonious Monk, where you have the feeling that he’s questioning, “Why does this note go to that one?” or “Why should it be that way?” With Holiday, she’s sort of begging you, “Can you hear this song if I go that slow?” She’s not only singing songs that people want to hear; she’s singing them in ways that people don’t expect.
“Big Stuff.” I did a lot of research, found everything I could find, and it still doesn’t tell the whole story. Leonard Bernstein had seen her at Café Society, where he’d accompanied Judy Holiday, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden as a pianist. He did some songs there. So he was well aware of what Billie could do, and he got this idea for Fancy Free, the ballet (which was turned into On the Town), that she would set the tone by coming out of a radio. Neither he nor Jerome Robbins had ever done anything big before, and wanted to do something very different from ballet or Broadway. Having Billie come out of a radio was going to set the tone for the whole thing. It’s not clear what happened. Some say he couldn’t afford her, which is possibly true. They were backing it themselves. It took off, and generated a huge following and stayed in the theater a long time. They all became stars because of it.
After the show was over, Bernstein persisted in getting it recorded, because he had the money then, and they went back and forth in the studio. There’s not a lot of difference in those takes except for rhythmic feeling, but Bernstein was complaining that she was introducing notes he didn’t write. I understand that from a classical point of view, but why would he want her to sing it in the first place if that was the case? Anyway, five versions are available. The curious thing is that the one Bernstein finally accepts is the one that’s freest and least arranged.
BNR: You include an interesting anecdote where she tells the journalist Al Aronowitz that Gershwin had asked her to sing in the original production of Porgy and Bess, and she turned it down.
JS: She was afraid of doing the same thing night after night, which she said would kill you. As an example, she cited the woman who did sing “Summertime” who was in her early thirties, and died shortly after the show closed. One thing that struck me was her dismissive statement that “Porgy and Bess never did anything for the race.” But then, Duke Ellington, who was always careful about what he said, was really rough on Gershwin, too. He said, “It’s like no music I’ve ever heard from black people,” etc. Of course, everyone recorded that tune, including Duke. It’s one of the most covered songs in the world. Billie recorded it right after the show closed, and also did the first non-classically-oriented version. By the way, when she did “I Loves You, Porgy,” she corrected the grammar.
On “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” in 1937, she’s so at ease gliding over the rhythmic suspensions in the song. Her time is such that she appears to be running behind the band some of the time, and yet if she were running behind, she’d still be singing while they’re playing, or they’d quit playing. A lot of the time she’s singing faster than the band is, but she’s not putting all the notes in — she’s making up for it in the breaks or held notes. That’s what’s mysterious about her singing. It’s very hard to describe, and it’s why singers aren’t able to imitate her well. They get the voice, they can improvise maybe, but they don’t do what she does. They never get the rhythm right. And they don’t improvise from the first note.
The final selection is “My Man,” which she recorded a lot. The first version, in 1937, which was done for jukebox, which was limited to three minutes, is sprightly. It has the “he beats me, too” kind of thing, but it’s done in such a cheerful way that you don’t really hear it. Later on, she’d stop there, stop the rhythm, and treat it as spoken. She slows it down, making it more of a torch song. Surely she would have known that Fanny Brice was famous for this song (she recorded it in 1922). Piaf did it, too. It has this prostitute overlay, like “Love for Sale.” It came from French apache dancing. When I was a kid, every season on the Ed Sullivan Show you’d see some apache dancers who dressed like stereotyped beatniks, and the male dancer would throw the female around. She’d end up on the floor, and that would be the last shot. Fred Astaire did a few of those things as well.
BNR: How do you view her position in popular culture today?
JS: I had some students look at The Maltese Falcon once. They seemed to really like it. I asked if the movie seemed dated to them, and they said, “Just the visual part; it sounds like the script was written yesterday.” I thought about Holiday. There’s a kind of controlled passion and an understatement. You don’t elaborate. You make the point and move on. Is this cool? I guess. It’s also the dandy, as Baudelaire first used that word. I quoted this in the Miles Davis biography. Baudelaire said, first of all, “the dandy lives to surprise and never be surprised,” but also said that they have the sense of cool fire that could burst into flame, but is under control — the same kind of cool fire that the aristocrats have. Now, I don’t know about aristocrats, but I’ll take Baudelaire at his word that there is something aristocratic about this kind of cool. That’s too strong a word, I guess. It’s above the masses. It’s not prostitute-like. I don’t know; prostitutes may be cool, too.
* * *
Farah Jasmine Griffin
BNR: When you wrote If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery fifteen years ago, you didn’t have access to Linda Kuehl’s interviews. Have your views of Billie Holiday subsequently evolved?
Farah Jasmine Griffin: In some ways, the material that has become available makes me even more admiring of what Lady pulled off as an artist. Julia Blackburn’s book shows the FBI agents and undercover police detectives who not only had her under surveillance but were actually in her life, which makes me admire even more the fact that she kept singing, that she kept giving up so much of herself as an artist. In my book, I resisted only seeing her as a tragic figure. As I’ve gotten older, I still don’t want to see her only as a tragic figure, but I think I have a much better grasp of how great art often does come from a place of deep loss, and the extent to which she did this has become more evident.
BNR: Shall we mention a few of the pieces that you discuss at length in Be a Mystery?
FJG: Yes. But there are some that I don’t discuss there that I listened to a lot then, and keep returning to. For instance, I am thinking about her version of “You’re My Thrill.” There’s a raw eroticism that I didn’t catch when I first heard it as a teenager, because I didn’t know what I was listening to. When I was younger, I heard it as, “There’s that sad Billie Holiday again.” Now it’s, “No, that’s not what she’s doing with this song.” There’s a certain tension. I’ve also heard other people interpret it, like Joni Mitchell, who have in some ways been in conversation with Lady’s interpretation.
I love the humor when she sings a conventional blues, like “Billie’s Blues” or “Fine and Mellow.” I think she recorded “Billie’s Blues” five times, so you can hear her at different stages. The version I’m thinking of is at Carnegie Hall in 1956. The audience immediately recognizes it and jumps in with applause, and you can feel them getting into it. Then there’s a beautiful interaction with the band, a kind of signifying, both musically and verbally. They punctuate her sentences with stop-time, and you hear somebody challenge her when she sings that line about “I ain’t good-looking.” There’s both a defiance and a strength that echoes the early blues queens like Bessie Smith, not in sound, but in the tone of the very lyrics themselves. And there’s humor. It seems everyone is having fun. It’s a different person from the torch song Lady Day of “You’re My Thrill.”
One of the early Billie Holiday songs that I fell in love with when I was much younger was “Them There Eyes.” The first albums of hers I’d heard were actually her late albums, like Lady in Satin and then maybe the last one. It’s a very different voice. That was my sense of her. When I heard “Them There Eyes,” I thought, “Oh my God, she sounds like a flirtatious teenager; there’s something almost bubbly in it.” There’s that youthful exuberance, and you really hear her rhythmic sensibilities.
BNR: In the book, you focus more on the later recordings. Do you have as intense a connection to the earlier ones?
FJG: Yes, I do; and no, I don’t. The reason why no, I don’t, is because I heard the later ones first, at a time when something formative was happening for me. When I hear them now, they take me to that place inside, which music does, so there’s an intense connection. I discovered the earlier ones later on, when I began listening to jazz on my own, when I was in college, early graduate school. I remember being surprised. My relationship as a listener to Billie Holiday is a constant set of surprises.
An interesting one for me is “Love for Sale.” I use it to talk to students about standards. I tell them that standards become standards because they provide a great opportunity for different artists to interpret them and tell their own story through them. I’ll play for them Ella Fitzgerald‘s “Love for Sale.” Then I say: “We know the story is about a lady of the evening, but based on the way she sings it, what kind of story is she telling? Who is she?” They’re like, “She’s young and she’s probably pretty.” Then I play Billie Holiday’s version. I say, “All right, here’s the same lyrics, but how is the story different? Is this the first time she’s gone up those stairs?” They’ll say, “No, not at all. She’s been around, she sounds really tired of this.” You might learn something about life, not just about sex. There’s this kind of knowingness there. I think some of them are even frightened of the story that Billie is able to tell; it has such depth and complexity. The third version I play is Dinah Washington‘s. It’s not at all sentimental; no “whore with a heart of gold” in that version.
Number five is a duet that she does with Louis Armstrong — “My Sweet Hunk o’ Trash.” That’s a favorite. I like the idea of the two of them together. It’s one of those fun songs, where they’re at the top of their game and certainly enjoying each other. there. Also, it’s one that isn’t often associated with her; when people do retrospectives, it’s not included very often.
I like her version of “No Regrets, 1936. Phoebe Snow‘s version was the first one I knew, and then someone told me Billie Holiday had recorded it. That version shows her beginning to sing the kinds of songs she’d be associated with, but it’s so upbeat.
BNR: I’d love to hear you unpack her musical relationship with Lester Young. Could we select one collaboration between them that’s particularly meaningful to you?
FJG: There are a number of them. But as much for the visual as for the audio, I like that one that’s recorded for The Sound of Jazz — “Fine and Mellow.” Here you have a relationship of two people who are well into their lives, who had actually started out very close and had some estrangement, and, in a way, they come back together here. I’ll start with the visual. She’s in her element, surrounded by these top-notch musicians (mostly horn players, except for Jo Jones on the drums) who were her peers. There’s a way that she looks at Lester Young with such love and understanding — it’s like it’s home. That’s the way I feel about their sound together. Whenever you hear them together, if he’s playing behind her, there’s a way that he’s caressing and embracing her. On this performance, they seem almost to echo each other. Her voice is an extension of his horn; his horn is an extension of her voice. Both have that kind of laid-back coolness, that behind-the-beat, “I’m not going to rush anywhere” phrasing. They came together beautifully there and elsewhere, but I think this event is especially powerful because you have a visual to back up what you’re hearing.
BNR: You wrote a very interesting critique of that performance. You discuss the positioning of the musicians as analogous to the ring shout, and also present a feminist analysis — that it’s she gazing at the men, not the men gazing at her.
FJG: I still feel that way about it. We even see this circle in hip-hop, not its commercial settings but when people come together in a community particularly to freestyle. The circle has both this creative energy but also a spiritual energy for the members of that community who are participating by listening and witnessing, as well as performing. It’s an improvisational space. I still feel that way. I like that we get to see her in the circle, watching her peers in ways that I think are rare. I can’t even imagine that kind of performance space on television now.
“You’ve Changed” from Lady in Satin, 1958. I talked about the raw eroticism in “You’re My Thrill.” This performance is sort of the loss of that. Even though she’s not saying it, you know it’s that partner in a relationship who you realize no longer feels the same way about you. “The sparkle in your eye is gone.” What happened? It’s one of those songs that I feel is universal. It’s the reason why she is loved all over the world, that she can give expression to our most private and human insecurities that we are very careful — rightly so — not to wear on our sleeves.
There’s “Rocky Mountain Blues,” another one of those rare blueses. “I cried last night, I cried all night the night before; I dried my eyes this morning, and I ain’t gonna cry no more.” It’s one of those songs, like, “OK, what else is there to say?” It goes very much against dwelling in sorrow. It’s exactly what the blues is supposed to do. Here’s a space for you to cry and to acknowledge what’s wrong, but there’s not going to be a whole lot of self-pitying. Do it and move on.
I guess my last one is “God Bless the Child,” which is resonating with me for two reasons. Billie Holiday is one of my favorite artists of life, and Toni Morrison is the other. Morrison has a new novel, titled God Help the Child — not “God Bless the Child” — but it certainly resonates with “God Bless the Child.”
I just read it in galley form.
That’s one reason. The second is that a former student recently published a piece in the New York Times, about “My Greatest Financial Lesson.” Her piece was about being kicked out of her foster home the day after she graduated from high school. She had an acceptance letter from the University of Pennsylvania but didn’t know how she was going to get through that summer to get to school. She talks about what she had to do, and how much she learned in the process. I met this young woman when she was a freshman who had finally got into Penn. Reading both the book and the article, I found myself saying, as if it’s a piece of scripture, “God bless the child that has its own.”
BNR: As you mentioned, Billie Holiday is one of those artists in whom almost anyone can find themselves, whoever it is, wherever they’re from. What are your thoughts about her impact on twenty-first-century artistic expression?
FJG: I think you’re absolutely right. I met a young woman who said she first started listening to Billie Holiday in Korea, as a little girl, late at night on the radio. I think it’s extraordinary that little Eleanora Fagan grew up to have this impact. She’s some sort of portal through which artists — particularly female vocalists — feel they have to come to be taken seriously as musicians. Some of them will come through it and reject her, and some will come to their own voice. Abbey Lincoln becomes a serious jazz vocalist through Billie Holiday. Nina Simone at first wants to be taken seriously like Holiday was taken seriously, and then decides she wants to do something else. Betty Carter.
She resonates with poets and philosophers, too. For them, there’s this ability to express longing and loss, a kind of depth to make something coherent and beautiful out of something that almost feels like an existential crisis in her voice.
Great artists are innovative. You can hear in them or see in them what came before, but nothing sounds like them or looks like what they produce, and nothing is the same after them, because they’ve influenced it all. This analogy is the way I think about Billie Holiday. Several years ago, I went to an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum of several hundred years of Spanish art. Within the religious art, many of the great artists painted one figure — the Friar, with the ruffled collar. You see Velásquez’s interpretation, all these interpretations, until you get to Picasso. All of a sudden he makes so much sense in terms of why he is who he is. He knows those earlier paintings of the Friar, and he references them. But when he paints the Friar, it’s a Cubist Friar, and his version makes us look at that Friar differently. He forced us to see the world differently. People imitated him for decades after. We don’t think of what he did as so revolutionary any more because we see it everywhere. With Billie Holiday it’s the same thing. She forces us to hear differently. Then people tried to sound like her. She set the standard.
BNR: In If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery, you don’t grapple so much with the particular events of her biography. Fifteen years later, can you speculate on how she was able to do it, the source of her mojo? The circumstances of her life were such that although you can see that singing was an escape, or a good time, or something she had to do. But this also is a woman who entered the studio dozens of times, was presented with lyrics maybe the day before, assimilated them, formed a point of view on them, and figured out what to do musically. That’s true genius – but not just genius. It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of knowledge and self-direction and self-critique that enabled her to reach that point at a very young age.
FJG: Many people have talent and don’t have discipline. Musically, Lady had both, although she might not have had discipline in other areas of her life. On top of that, for lack of a better word, there’s a spiritual depth, a depth of experiencing the world in a way that it has meaning beyond oneself. If you have that level of sensitivity to the world and have the musical gift to express that sensitivity, it’s almost an act of survival to keep creating. It reminds me of a line that’s attributed to Jesus, not in the Bible, but in the Gnostic Gospels, which I’ll paraphrase. I’m going to get it wrong, but Jesus says something like, “If you express what is inside of you, it can save you, and if you don’t, it can be the source of your destruction.” There’s something inside her, and I think it was the source of her survival to continue to do something with it. Luckily for us, what she does with it is beautiful. I haven’t quite theorized that yet, but I keep seeing it over and over again, and it makes me go back to her. What she had been through could have destroyed anyone else. Fortunately, she had a medium whereby she could turn it into something incredible that touched people all around the world. I think it’s a lesson that we can find genius everywhere, like that little green plant that insists on coming up through the concrete. If you look for it, you’ll find it. I think if aliens come and hear Billie Holiday, they’ll have a sense of what humanity is.