Admittedly, I am fascinated by Billie Holiday. First, of course, it’s “the voice.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s a race for second place amongst all other jazz singers; Billie was the greatest. Then, of course, it’s her story; along with Elvis Presley, Billie Holiday represents the most fatally flawed of America’s musical royalty. As the public watched their final acts predictably play out, the two’s legends and accomplishments grew intertwined with their unsavory, fatalistic personal lives.
In his new book Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, John Szwed points out Holiday’s — and jazz music’s — “triumphs” came at a cost: “Holiday’s concerts were the final public acceptance of jazz as an art form and of the black performer as artist. The life and the art had become interchangeable. And the life and the art had become a kind of voyeuristic tragedy for the artist and a self-conscious tragedy for the artist.” Billie herself would recognize this, saying a bit more bluntly “They come to see me fall on my ass.”
By his own admission, Szwed has tried to write a different kind of book about Holiday, one that “attempts to widen our sense of who Billie Holliday was, one that sets her life in the particular framework of the world in which she lived” and, in that, the author delivers. While I’ve read several accounts of the tragic singer (including Wishing On The Moon, which I reviewed here) I stayed away from the infamous autobiography Lady Sings The Blues, due to the widely-held belief that it is more fiction than not. Szwed turns all of that on its head with a fascinating defense of the book. He wonders whether Holiday’s account (“as a responsible author and agent of her own destiny”) wasn’t a victim of her race, her gender, her reputation and her occupation itself. He asserts that her account of her life, was “an act of redemption, an attempt to assert her dignity; hers was not a victim’s story.” The film of the book, helmed by Motown’s Berry Gordy, would not even try to lay claim to being authentic; he told the film’s star, Diana Ross “The hell with being truthful…white people don’t worry about changing the facts to make a good story. Szwed’s fresh perspective on Holiday’s autobiography was my favorite part of the book and will send me off to read yet another account of Lady Day — ironically, the original account, penned by the singer herself.
I also enjoyed “The Four Billies,” a section where Szwed argues for an additional stylistic period to join the three that most people associate with Holiday: jazz, torch and “pop,” in this case, the songs of the day, often sweetened with strings. The fourth stage encompasses the final two records of Holiday’s career, Lady In Satin and Last Recording. Those records largely featured jazz standards and reinterpretations of some of Holiday’s catalogue, but were also the most controversial because of Billie’s ravaged voice. Due to her reckless lifestyle and, now set amongst lush arrangements, her singing sounded like unbearable death throes some and honesty and emotion to others. To be sure, her late-period recording of “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” or “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” are melancholic masterpieces, alternatingly fascinating and hard to listen to, clearly informed by her life’s bumpy journey. Those later albums, heartbreaking as they are, remain amongst my favorites.
And that’s what makes this book such a compelling read. If you’re a fan, you know the stories, but Szwed puts a fresh spin on many of them. He touches on Billie’s stylistic and cultural influences, her musical relationship with Lester Young, and the songwriting credit and royalty disputes that would swirl around her signature song “Strange Fruit.” If you’re new to the many myths of the legendary singer, there’s enough traditional biography and backstory to bring you up to speed The author states that in his other biographies, he usually “tries to stay out of the way” but, with Billie, he had hoped “to give her a new hearing in the court of biographical opinion. Szwed has certainly done that, creating an essential new chapter to the Billie Holiday story.
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