State of the Art

Happy birthday, Billie Holiday

If you’re a classically trained singer, you wince when someone sings over or under pitch. Sometimes you’re polite about your response to this warbling, and sometimes you’re not: When I was 8, I asked my mom to stop singing while she did housework, because she was murdering Rosemary Clooney’s “Tenderly.”

So as I learned about jazz, I gravitated toward singers who either nailed notes dead center (Ella Fitzgerald) or broke rules intentionally, singing with precision when they chose and bending notes for effect (Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington). I never understood Billie Holiday: She scooped up to some notes, approximated others, let her voice break in odd places and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) sustain an even tone.

Luckily, one of the many things I learned from marriage was to appreciate Lady Day, as saxophonist Lester Young dubbed her. She’s my wife’s favorite jazz musician, and I eventually realized that what I took for vocal laziness or inaccuracy was Holiday’s way of conveying the emotional truth of a song. Here’s the number that turned things around for me:

Holiday, who’d have been 100 next Tuesday, had a brief and troubled life. She didn’t know her father, seldom saw her mother, was almost raped at 11 and became a prostitute at 14. She was a drug addict and an alcoholic and died at 44 of cirrhosis of the liver, having broken her body in many ways and endured relationships with abusive men.

She poured her pain into music. Her uptempo numbers had a wistfulness that kept the sun from shining all the way through the clouds. Her sad songs had soul-deep pathos. Just before her death, Frank Sinatra was quoted in Ebony magazine as calling her “unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” (Many folks would have said that of him.)

She toured or recorded with Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and other giants. Over time, her voice deteriorated to a wisp – an emotion-filled wisp – but she kept making records. Probably the best of these were cut for Decca (“My Man,” “Them There Eyes,” “God Bless the Child”), but the earlier, more light-hearted sides for Columbia swing sweetly.

Listen only with your ears, and it’s easy to be critical. That’s true of a lot of great singers, from Maria Callas – the finest singing actor I know in opera – to Hank Williams. But listen with your heart, and you can’t help falling under her spell.