The Brilliance of Billie Holiday and Her Demise 61 Years Ago This Weekend

Billie Holiday burst into the American cultural consciousness with artistic innovation that grounded itself in the blues, but which had every intention of expanding the jazz vocal tradition like no singer has since.

Holiday emerged as a poplar artist at aged 19 in the 1930s after a woebegone childhood that featured iterative abandonment by her mother and father. She had been in reform school by 12. Her teen years witnessed adventures in the world of prostitution and a police arrest — which happened at the same time with her mother, who was practicing the same trade.

Yet, Holiday, born in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore, developed a gift for song and an inclination toward the world of entertainment she inherited from her father, Clarence Holiday, an itinerant guitarist who would eventually become a sideman in the famed Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

Today, July 17, 2020 is the 61st anniversary of Holiday’s death; she passed away at the Metropolitan Hospital in New York City where she was also being held under arrest for drug possession. Holiday was as much a casualty of the cirrhosis of liver that claimed her life, as she was a victim of a highly segregated society, a rapacious recoding industry and the patriarchal milieu wherein she performed.

Holiday — called Lady Day after she had blossomed professionally — was preternaturally gifted, possessing brilliant abilities at conveying the protean characteristics of the blues with the transcendent feel that the genre accommodates. At her best, she produced music which was, in essence, nuanced meditations on the meaning of worldly pain and misfortune which, in turn, served as secular vehicles for catharsis, renewal and wisdom.

Her voice can best be described as registering closest to the reed musical instruments — as having a specific investment in sincerely and the bright sound of the upper colorings of the clarinet. During her decline, before dying at 44, her singing was more sonorous in tone and tended toward lugubriousness instead of joyous levity.

And, so we must now pause to reflect on Sidney Bechet, regarding Holiday’s precious voicing and how it connects all concerning sound and democracy. Blue Horizon, that solo Bechet recorded in the early 1900s, lifted the nation at the time. It was a gifting blues from the clarinet that pointed us toward higher ground and a definitive racial reality, and so characteristically it was honest; and so gloriously we were baptized by Bechet. The big sounding of blues handed down to Holiday from Bechet can not be discounted because of the tragic experience it conveyed and the hope that it carries.

Holiday was a uniquely urban singer, whose languorously stated cadences and uncooked subject matters reflected the exceedingly fast lanes of the big city. The frenetic paces of the metropolis — where street hustling and the poignant mannerisms of the decidedly ruffian life were commonplace were also formative in her mind. For Holiday, these stylings of living were accompanied, and unavoidable by the sordid realities of sequestered juke joints and blind pigs where drugs, prurient pursuits and the over consumption of illicit grog were common fare.

But, in these desperate environments Holiday produced a magnificant career as an aural poet, helping define foundational sound of voice performance that resonates in American music today. Holiday was known as an iconoclast, mostly singing behind or above the beat of the song, giving the performance tension and pleasant, unexpected improvisational inflection. Her use of time and pitched modulation, in this sense, was a form of deconstructionism, that predated the philosophical school of literary criticism commanded decades later by Jacques Derrida and his rejection of Platonic form as an essentialist appreciation of aesthetic function. Holiday’s grasp at such high-minded theoretical technique revealed her advanced cultural imagination as she explored the densities of the black experience.

Few American artist during her day, including Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn or Ethel Waters, possessed Holiday’s capacity to engage the realm of pathos when it came to the categories of love or death. And, In someways she patterned her stylistic choices on Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, two artists who, in heroic fashion, paved the conditions and nicities of the emerging American sound of the 1920s. Her voice was siren-like with hypnotic tonality that beached upon extraordinary beauty. Any casual listener of the recordings she made famous like Solitude, These Foolish Things and God Bless the Child, can barley resist their salvific quality and ultimate gestures toward an earthy eschatology.

The cultural critic Stanley Crouch said this about Holiday: “ In the face of virtuoso moves, Holiday was so far ahead on human feeling as to be invincible. She had learned her craft through listening to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith — desiring Armstrong’s sense of time and his brilliant choice of notes as well as Smith’s big sound.”

Her rendering of Strange Fruit is legendary. The lyric depicts the legacy of lynching in the American South and its clear anti-democratic contradictions. This is standard righteous propaganda for the pre-civil rights movement causes in the 1940s. Yet, Holliday lends an elevated quality to this protest song that make the words sacred. The lynched black man somehow becomes a type of Christ whose cruxifixction upon an American Golgotha shadows the redemptive possibilities that the American black may well present to the possibility of democratic life in our nation.

In a similar vein, Holiday nurtured an emotional approach toward performance about themes of love and romance that few others have been able to do within the confines of jazz voice conventions. She could summon concupiscence with sly phrasing and well placed innuendo. She was best, however, at plaintively delivering love ballads that moved us past mere eros to places of ethereal concern that captured the meanings and manifestations of agape — those subtle and diaphanous regions where affection is realized in its most overpowering fragilities.

Here, the song I Thought About You comes to mind. In this 1954 recording, written by Johnny Mercer and composed by Jimmy Van Heusen, Holiday describes the yearnings of recently separated sweethearts. As one lover travels from their amorous assignation, she is all longing and despair, experiencing the excruciating dimensions of acute apartness. The performance is at once mournful yet affirming of the spiritual quality of love that remains for us excrutiating. The song is a powerful evocation of immense feeling and the shared ephemeral dispostions.

It is well to reflect on Holiday on the anniversary of her death as a bittersweet reminder that her contribution to world culture lives on.

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and Convener of the Fanueil Hall Race and Reconciliation Project. He is a social and cultural critic.

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