Esteemed music scholar Szwed (Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, 2010, etc.) offers a portrait of Lady Day as artist and mythmaker rather than tragic victim. More than any other vocal artist of her era, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) continues to capture the attention of historians and critics. The grim details of her life are, by now, well-known: how she emerged from a background of poverty and prostitution and, for the remainder of her years, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, abusive relationships, and racism. Szwed does not gloss over these facts, but neither does he dwell on them, instead centering his account on Holiday's enigmatic persona and its relationship to her art. He calls the book a "meditation" on Holiday rather than a strict biography and assumes that readers will have some familiarity with her life story. The first part of the book, "The Myth," is a fragmentary but detailed exploration of how Holiday's persona developed outside of her recordings, focusing on her controversial autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (especially what was edited out of the manuscript) along with her film and TV appearances. The second part, "The Musician," which takes up more than half the book, is an erudite blend of cultural history and musical insight that examines the historical context of Holiday's career, placing her in a lineage of female singers that reaches back to the 19th century. Szwed also takes a close look at Holiday's innovative vocal approach, reminding us that although she had no formal training, she possessed a remarkable gift for improvisation and interpretation, often reshaping melodies to the extent that she essentially rewrote them according to her own idiosyncratic visions. As with the best of Holiday's music, this elegant and perceptive study is restrained, nuanced, and masterfully carried out.
Praise for Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth
“A concise and sharply focused critical biography. . . . Szwed is aware of the danger of the Holiday legend, and is determined to show that she was much more than an emotive performer blessed with a unique gift. Tracing her musical influences and analyzing her thoughtful vocal artistry, he makes the case that she is, if anything, underrated as a musician.”
—The New Yorker
“[Szwed] offers a portrait of Lady Day as artist and mythmaker rather than tragic victim. . . . As with the best of Holiday’s music, this elegant and perceptive study is restrained, nuanced, and masterfully carried out.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
“[This] illuminating account restores to the singer the dignity of a true artist, one who emerges from [Szwed’s] pages—and the records to which they drive you hungrily back—as a revolutionary. Holiday’s originality becomes clear when Szwed examines the ascendancy of black American singers . . . What the reader is left with is not Holiday’s familiar, ravaged private life but the triumph of a unique creative talent.”
—Neil Spencer, The Observer
“A book that goes beyond biography and looks into Holiday’s meaning and reception.”
—Ben Ratliff, The New York Times
“Revelatory. . . . A meta-biography, about the creation of Holiday’s public image in media of all sorts: print, television, movies, and, of course, her recordings, but with special attention to the composition of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.”
—Richard Brody, TheNewYorker.com
“Billie Holiday’s fabled personal crises, the struggles against chemical dependency, sexual abuse and racism, have long threatened to overshadow her Promethean stature as an artist. Now, on the centennial of her birth, John Szwed, a veteran biographer and jazz musician, seeks to redress this imbalance . . . . Mr. Szwed, the author of acclaimed studies of Miles Davis, Sun Ra and folklorist Alan Lomax, is at his best when excavating hidden stories behind some of the more durable pillars of the Holiday legend. . . . Mr. Szwed writes in a clear, assured style that is particularly revealing when limning the contours of Holiday’s musical world.”
—David Freeland, The Wall Street Journal
“Szwed’s swift, conversational and yet detail-rich new biography, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, communicates its artist-first priorities in the subtitle, and then makes good on them throughout. . . . about as fine a centenary-year gift as anyone had a right to expect.”
— Seth Colter Walls, The Guardian
“A convention-defying biography to watch for.”
“Unsatisfied with labeling Holiday ‘the greatest jazz singer of all time,’ veteran jazz biographer Szwed attempts to deconstruct the entertainer and her vocal magic by puncturing her celebrated public image and her legendary performances. . . . Szwed provides an alternative to the gossip and scandal usually associated with Holiday with this highly entertaining, essential take on an truly American original.”
—Publishers Weekly (Top 10 Music books of Spring 2015)
“Szwed’s book offers a fresh attempt to understand and explain the nature and scope of Holiday’s achievement.”
—Times Literary Supplement
“A musicologist’s appreciation of the jazz singer . . . a marvel.”
“Insightful, investigative . . . entertaining and illuminating . . . a wonderfully engaging and revealing look at the great Lady Day.”
“Szwed devotes most of his book to Holiday’s music and musicianship—comparing her singing style to contemporaries like Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich—rather than her drug problems and other downbeat stories with which most people are already familiar.”
—Billy Heller, The New York Post
“[Szwed] is interested in the gap between Holiday’s public image and her artistic achievement. . . . [He] is excellent on Billie’s voice—variously called ‘sad, olive-toned, whisky-hued, lazy, feline, smoky, unsentimental, weird,’ he writes—and on her trademark techniques of ‘falling behind the beat, floating, breathing where it’s not expected, scooping up notes and then letting them fall.’ [Szwed] devotes ample space to the songs with which she is most closely identified. . . . A worthy addition to the bookshelf on this woman whose music has lost none of its enigmatic power.”
—Tom Beer, Newsday
“As iconic as Lady Day is, the woman, artist and her personality, her singular jazz artistry is shrouded in misconceptions. Szwed adroitly re-frames the dialogue in his economic and, ultimately vital, understanding of Holiday’s true musical achievements. . . . Lady Day’s real life as an artist, woman and innovator, is given her full musical due, finally.”
—Lew Washington, The Huffington Post
Praise for Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
"Factually tireless and fluently analytical, Szwed gamely corrals a great river of events, efforts, and discoveries into a straight-ahead portrait of an intrepid, culture-defining artist and humanist."
—Booklist (Starred review)
"Szwed is a sensitive interpreter of music. . . he is meticulous about the work, and makes a strong case for Lomax as a central figure in the history of American music."
—The New Yorker
"A keenly appreciative, enormously detailed new Lomax biography."
—The New York Times
"John Szwed has written a graceful and informative cradle-to-grave study that's a perfect marriage of author and subject."
—Douglas Brinkley, Texas Monthly
Praise for So What: The Life of Miles Davis
"Szwed offers crisply detailed backstories to such masterpieces as Sketches of Spain, Round About Midnight and Miles Ahead. His prose has a musical pulse, and he highlights the most significant element of Davis's soul: 'he told every woman he became involved with that music always came first, before family, children, lovers, friends.' Davis's music has been called a 'divine disease,' and this in-depth study clarifies the nature of that compulsive, satisfying malady in a way that will enlighten listeners and musicians."
Praise for Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
"Szwed has produced a rare jazz biographyone that takes full account of the history that shaped the music and its central personalities. An anthropologist, historian and musicologist who teaches at Yale, Szwed brings an impressive array of skills to this job. He needs them all to track down a subject whose every word seems intended to protect him from scrutiny."
—Brent Staples, The New York Times Book Review