Vail Daily column: The tragic greatness of Billie Holiday
The year is 1915. Eleanora Fagan is born out of wedlock into a life of poverty. Her parents are African-American teenagers, but somehow Elenora will become one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time. She will be dead at 44, a legendary figure with a cult-like following. You know her as Billie “Lady Day” Holiday.
If a legendary figure is someone who was famous and admired because of a particular expertise or ability, then Billie qualifies. But because she had TAO, her legendary status has grown enormously since her death over 56 years ago. What is TAO? It is not Chinese philosophy or religion, but instead TAO is a mnemonic device that fully describes her life and talent: Tragic, Authentic, Original.
Billie’s story has been told many times, most notably in her 1956 autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues” (which she didn’t author) and the 1972 movie version of the book staring Diana Ross, which kindled new interest in Billie’s tragic life. Billie didn’t attend school regularly and dropped out by the age of 11. She was separated from her mother on several occasions because of Billie’s brushes with the law and her mother’s instability. As a teen, she was reunited with her mother, who had become a prostitute, and before Billie was 14, she was arrested and jailed for prostitution.
A curbed career
Billie had no musical training, but she loved to sing along with the recordings of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and she began to sing in Harlem before she was 15. She was “discovered” at 18, beginning a career that included performances, recordings and radio gigs with the who’s who of jazz before she was 21. At 24, she was an established artist performing on her own, with a unique, bluesy, innovative style that relied on the way jazz instrumentalists altered the phrasing and rhythm of a song. Her distinctive look with a gardenia in her hair was captivating.
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One of her musical gifts was to deliver original renditions of material that had previously been performed by others, as well as her own originals and she began to influence other artists, including Sinatra who had high praise for her. The depth of her emotion, the haunting quality of her voice and poignancy that she brought to the lyrics of standards were honest reflections of Billie’s turbulent life, drenched in pain and suffering. The public had never heard anything like it and from the late 1930s until the late 1940s she was on top of the charts.
Billie had a series of failed marriages with destructive and abusive men who took advantage of her financial success. They were enablers as she spiraled down into the dark world of drugs and alcohol, causing her career to be curbed by her unreliability and multiple incarcerations during the last decade of her life. Billie’s addiction claimed her life when she was only 44, dying broke and handcuffed to a hospital bed awaiting trial on a drug charge. The sad reality was that for most of the last decade of her life, drugs had taken a toll on her voice and she was a shadow of her former greatness.
As a trail-blazing African American woman, Billie suffered innumerable indignities and performance restrictions, but in spite of those hurdles, she left behind a great body of work that speaks to her authenticity as an artist, two of which deserve special mention. “Strange Fruit” was a poem set to music that recounted in a shocking manner a true incident of the lynching of two black men. The song was highly controversial as an anti-racist statement, but her audiences demanded that she sing it.
“God Bless the Child” (co-written by Billie) sprung out of Billie’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother, who then owned a money-losing restaurant which Billie had continuously supported. When she asked her mother to repay her, her mother refused and said, “God bless the child that’s got his own.” The pain and disappointment of a failed relationship with a mother who never gave to Billie, but only took, is painfully communicated in this song.
The truth is that Billie did not have a great voice and had a limited vocal range, but she was a truth teller who was frank, open and honest. Her TAO has resonated with successive generations of listeners who have come to admire Billie Holiday as a true legendary jazz artist.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 21st year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit http://www.vailjazz.org for more information.