Remembering Billie Holiday

I was reminded by the radio this morning that today is the 60th anniversary of the death of the great Billie Holiday, who passed away on 17th July 1959. A consummate vocal artist who was in my book the greatest jazz singer there has ever been, Billie was only 44 years old when she died and, according to reports, her bank account contained only 70 cents. She lived a short and very hard life but still managed to leave a priceless legacy of wonderful music. She definitely paid her dues, so I couldn’t resist marking this sad anniversary with an example of her art from what I think was her best period, the 1930s, before alcoholism and drug addiction took such a heavy toll on her voice and she became a little mannered and self-conscious.

I’m not sure it’s possible for any record to be perfect, but there are definitely some that I can’t imagine being improved in any way. I can think of a number of Jazz records that fall into that category, including this version of When You’re Smiling made in 1938. It features Billie Holiday and Lester Young along a number of members of the Count Basie Orchestra (apart from the Count himself, who is replaced by Teddy Wilson on piano).

That this is a favourite record of mine is a bit of a paradox, because I don’t really like the song very much. However, in jazz, the tune is just the starting point. In her early recording career, Billie Holliday wasn’t very well known so she was often given relatively unpromising songs to sing. She turned out to be brilliant at turning that sort of base metal into gold and became probably the best ever singer of a bad song.

In this track it’s not just the way Billie Holiday’s voice floats ethereally across the beat as she takes outrageous liberties with both melody and rhythm. Nor is the way she manages to express everything there is about life and love and heartache through the rather banal lyrics, investing the song with a deep sense of tragic irony. Nor is it Lester Young’s superbly constructed tenor saxophone solo near the end, which one of the very greatest by one of the very greatest. Nor is it that lightly swinging rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones who push the whole thing along on gossamer wings, just as they did with the Baside Band, making most of their rivals sound like clodhoppers. Listen in particular how Jo Jones accentuates Lester Young’s solo here and there with telepathic rimshots.

All the component parts of this performance are magnificent, but the whole is even greater than their sum. It’s a timeless jazz masterpiece, three minutes of solid gold, and I hope a fitting tribute to a great artist.

Rest in Peace, Lady Day.

6 Responses to “Remembering Billie Holiday”

  1. stallphill Says:

    The half-life of the proton is at least 10^34 years, but Lady Day is forever!

  2. What’s the origin of the nickname “Lady Day”?

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