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If asked to assemble a dream band of musiciansone for each instrumentdrawn from the centurylong history of jazz, aficionados of the music would soon be snapping at each other’s throats. Who’s on trumpetLouis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, or Clifford Brown? Which saxophonistSidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman? But the dust would settle when it came time to choose a female vocalist. From her emergence in the ’30s through the present, Billie Holiday has reigned as the voice of jazz, and it’s unlikely that any singer will ever come along to unseat her.
Holiday triumphed over seemingly insurmountable odds to become one of America’s cultural treasures. An illegitimate child born in poverty, she was raped at 11 and worked in a brothel before she made her first record, at 18. Her soundthin and slightly acidic with scarcely more than an octave rangelacked the sweetness and luster of the voices of her contemporaries, Mildred Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald. But her extraordinary gift for improvisation and her intensely confessional, often sardonic, interpretation of lyrics more than compensated for her unremarkable instrument. Holiday’s recordings appealed to listeners of all degrees of sophistication, from patrons of working-class bars feeding coins into jukeboxes to fellow musicians, songwriters, and intellectuals.
If Holiday’s work gives rise to any dispute among jazz fans, it’s the question of determining which phase of her career was the most fruitful. In many of her reputation-making mid-’30s singles, released by Columbia and its associated labels Vocalion, Brunswick, and OKeh, she was merely one component of the small ensembles she recorded with, an illustrious company that, at various times, included pianist Teddy Wilson; trumpeters Buck Clayton, Roy Eldridge, and Red Allen; clarinetists Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Ed Hall; trombonists Dicky Wells and Jack Teagarden; and saxophonists Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Lester Young, Holiday’s musical and emotional soul mate. Often her contribution was restricted to a single chorus, sandwiched between an introductory instrumental statement of each song’s melody and a closing chorus featuring solo improvisations. Even in the brief space Holiday was allotted, she proved herself to be as inventive and expressive as the best of her cohorts.
By the late ’30s, Holiday had become a headliner, ascending from team player to the star of her recordings. On her later Columbia singles, she performed the first and third choruses, and on her subsequent disks for Commodore and Decca, the instrumentalists largely functioned as accompanists. Reaching for a wider audience, she performed with string orchestras and vocal groups, and took on the challenge of more ambitious material, including the devastating lynching song “Strange Fruit” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Big Stuff.”
In the early ’50s, following a highly publicized arrest and prison sentence for drug possession, Holiday signed with Verve, the label with which she was associated for nearly the remainder of her career. (After her Verve contract ended, she made two valedictory albums: the heartbreaking Lady in Satin, a short-lived 1958 return to Columbia, and an eponymous final project, released by MGM the following year, months after her death.) Although her voice had coarsened and she avoided the rollicking tempos of her salad days, Holiday had become a peerlessly affecting diseuse, illuminating love songs with hard-won wisdom.
Complete CD editions of Holiday’s post-Columbia recordings, including alternate takes, began appearing more than a decade ago. Her Commodore material was released in 1988 and has since been reissued in an expanded version by GRP. Decca issued a two-disc set in 1991, and Verve produced a 10-CD Holiday box in 1993. But, inexplicably, we’ve been denied a comprehensive package of Holiday’s Columbia recordings, performances prized even by those who lack enthusiasm for her subsequent work. In 1986, Japanese Columbia compiled an eight-CD Holiday box that contained what was then thought to be all of her work for the label, but the parent company chose not to distribute this package in the United States. Instead, between 1987 and 1991, American Columbia releasedbut soon deleteda nine-volume “Quintessential” series of its Holiday masters.
At last, Columbia/Legacy has issued Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944. This oversized, lavishly produced package contains 230 tracks, including 35 previously unreleased alternate takes and radio broadcasts. The sound has been carefully remastered; the integrity of Holiday’s voice is never compromised by excessive filtering to minimize hiss and surface noise. (In their attempts to “clean up” vintage recordings, contemporary sound engineers often compress high tones, narrowing the dynamic range of the original material. Decca Jazz/GRP’s Mildred Bailey reissues, disfigured by an echoey canned sound that saps the music’s vitality, offer a particularly distressing example of this practice.) Alternate takes are confined to the last two-and-a-half discs, eliminating the usual box-set tedium of having to listen to as many as four consecutive versions of the same song.
It would be presumptuous to attempt to “review” these classic performances, which have indelibly altered the course of pop and jazz singing. Holiday’s interpretations of quality standards”These Foolish Things,” “More Than You Know,” “The Man I Love”are nonpareil, and she transformed jerry-built Tin Pan Alley tunes”A Sailboat in the Moonlight,” “Say It With a Kiss,” “Laughing at Life”into time-defying personal statements. (Anyone who doubts the redemptive power of interpretive art will be astonished by what Holiday and Young made of “Me, Myself and I,” an inane ditty that begins “Me, myself, and I/Are all in love with you/We all think you’re wonderful/We do.”) Saddled with vacuously optimistic, Depression-era lyrics, Holiday, like Fats Waller, tartly undercut their banality, and she didn’t even attempt to conceal her disbelief in the Pollyannaish sentiments expressed in “Getting Some Fun Out of Life” and “Having Myself a Time.” Although even Holiday couldn’t transcend such hopeless novelty songs as “Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town” and “Eeny Meeny Meiny Mo,” there’s scarcely a track in the collection that isn’t marked by passages of vocal and instrumental magic.
Lady Day contains many of the singer’s often-reissued signature pieces: “Miss Brown to You,” “I Cried for You,” “No Regrets,” “Foolin’ Myself,” “He’s Funny That Way,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” and “God Bless the Child.” What makes the collection especially satisfying, however, is the resurrection of equally splendid recordings that never became hits. Holiday’s sense of humor, which she chose to soft-pedal on her later records, shines through in her cheeky interpretations of “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” Irving Berlin’s wry put-down of a square sourpuss, and Cole Porter’s elegantly naughty carpe diem “Let’s Do It.”
In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday expressed regret at not having children. This unfulfilled maternal impulse found expression in “Mandy Is Two,” recorded at her final Columbia session but unreleased until the early ’50s. Johnny Mercer wrote the lyric, filled with deft internal rhymes, about his own infant daughter: “If you could see her majesty/With braids in her hair/Almost as though her Sunday beau/Came along and brought her an orchid to wear.” Holiday’s performance glows with an unguarded
tenderness unmatched by any of her other recordings.
When asked to pick her own favorite record, Holiday usually chose “Some Other Spring,” co-written by her friend Irene Wilson. When Wilson’s husband, Teddy Wilson, the pianist-leader on many of Holiday’s early records, abandoned her, she was shattered. Assisted by collaborator Arthur Herzog, Wilson channeled her misery into this dark, unconventionally structured art song. (The lyric begins, “Some other spring/I’ll try to love/Now I still cling to faded blossoms/Fresh when worn/Left crushed and torn/Like the love affair I mourn.”) The melody proved to be too complex and the words too woeful to achieve popularity, but it remains one of Holiday’s most haunting performances.
Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find fault with the music, Columbia/Legacy’s presentation leaves much to be desired. The sturdy but cumbersome 10-by-12-inch package prohibits shelving Lady Day with the rest of your CD collection, and the discs themselves are housed in stiff cardboard sleeveswhich makes them susceptible to scratching unless you remove and replace them carefully. In the accompanying 116-page booklet, all of the black-and-white photographs, some quite rare, are monotonously tinted purple, as are most of the pages that contain the set’s detailed discographical information and three essays, two of which are shockingly substandard.
The first of these, jazz critic and biographer Gary Giddins’ “Ladies Day,” offers a summary of Holiday’s life and career. It’s eloquently written but contains little in the way of new information or fresh insights. “Literary Lady” follows, a brief overview of how Holiday has been depicted in black literature, written by Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and African-American Studies at Columbia University. Filled with the buzzwords of academic race and gender analyses Holiday is referred to as the “ancestor,” “muse,” and “foremother” of black woman writersthis racially skewed lucubration dismisses representations of Holiday by writers of other races (Elizabeth Hardwick’s depiction of a Holiday nightclub performance in her novel Sleepless Nights “leaves the narrator and thus the reader wanting”) or ignores them altogether (Alice Adams’ novel Listening to Billie goes unmentioned). In her haste to disenfranchise non-African-American writers, Griffin fails to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of Holiday’s songs were composed by songwriters of European descent and that the instruments that accompany her and the tonal system they employ are also of European, rather than African, origin. Holiday’s music belongs to all of us, and Griffin’s attempt to appropriate it as the heritage of a single race is misguided, if not distasteful.
But the worst is yet to come. Album co-producer Michael Brooks weighs in with “The Songs of Billie Holiday,” 33 tiny-print pages of track-by-track annotations containing some of the most embarrassing writing I have ever slogged through. Pare away the thudding attempts at humor, chunks of overripe “poetic” prose, strained metaphors, fantasies (a musical adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth starring Holiday, Paul Robeson, and Diana Ross!), scatological imagery, sneering observations about the movies from which Holiday’s songs were derived, and self-indulgent autobiographical reflections, and you’ll find little of value about the performances themselves.
On “With Thee I Swing,” Brooks babbles: “While other vocalists might have thrown in the towel, or the sackcloth and ashes, Billie sings it as though it was written by Rodgers & Hart, which is like installing stained glass windows in outhouses.”
On “That’s Life I Guess”: “Billie disdains the easy, self-pity route, refusing to wallow in crocodile tears and delivers the lyrics in the grave manner of a cancer specialist who has delivered a thousand death sentences.”
On “I’ll Never Be the Same”: “As we listen to Billie dig, prune and fertilize, the suspicion emerges that in a previous existence she must have been one of the gardeners in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.”
But you don’t have to read this rubbishor even like the color purpleto treasure this long-overdue package from the timeless Lady Day. CP