Written by Bernie Brink
Revolutionary musician and vocalist Billie Holiday is both a jazz icon and a tragic figure. A revolutionary musician, she set a template for all jazz vocalists who followed her, rooted in tradition but looking far into the future. A revolutionary activist, she set an example for civil rights advocates as she fought tenaciously for her own rights. These things vaulted her beyond mere stardom to become a symbol in American culture.
A child of Baltimore, Maryland, early on she was inspired by the records of Louis Armstrong and the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith. These influences are clear in Holiday’s recordings — Smith’s soulful pitch bends and growls, as well as Armstrong’s flippant turns and playful gestures can all be heard in Billie Holiday’s sumptuous vocals. But Holiday’s work goes far beyond mere mimicry, as she used these influences as tools to forge not only a unique voice, but a new paradigm of vocal practice in jazz. When she made her first recordings in 1935 with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, a record producer recruited her for the date because she had an improvisational sound, something never before heard from a jazz vocalist. While scat singing is what typically comes to mind when thinking of vocal improvisation, Holiday exerted her improvisational prowess in the delivery of the lyrics themselves. Her vocal renditions sound very much like melodic interpretations by players like Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins in her phrasing and use of vibrato. Though it may sound natural or ordinary to modern ears, it was anything but, and the fact that her approach now sounds quintessential demonstrates just how extraordinary and influential her sound was.
It’s well known that Billie Holiday also endured a lifetime of adversity and maltreatment, from childhood abuse and prostitution to drug use and exploitation. She spent most of her adult life as a political target of the U.S. government and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, ultimately leading to her untimely death at just forty-four years old. The persistence of these hardships make her incredible achievements and contributions that much more remarkable.
This month, our friends at Theatreworks are presenting Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a one-woman show that is a fictional account of one of Billie Holiday’s last performances at a Philadelphia night club. You can learn more about this incredible artist and her life story by checking out the Theatreworks article below, and by listening to Jazz 93.5!