Archive for Billie Holiday

Remembering Billie Holiday

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on July 17, 2019 by telescoper

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.

We’ll Be Together Again

Posted in Jazz, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2017 by telescoper

So, we’ve come to it at last.

At 12.30 BST the Prime Minister’s letter invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be delivered to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. This will begin the process by which the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. It also begins the process of dismantling the United Kingdom itself. Scottish independence is now an inevitability as is, probably on a slightly longer timescale, the reunification of Ireland.

I am sad beyond words that this country has taken this path to self-destruction, but can only hope that we eventually see sense and change or mind at some point in the next two years, or return to the fold at some later stage.

No artist was better at conveying a sense of tragedy and loss through their music than Billie Holiday, and here’s a track by her that perfectly expresses my feelings at this bleak time:

No tears, no fears
Remember there’s always tomorrow
So what if we have to part
We’ll be together again



All of Me – Billie Holiday & Lester Young

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on March 8, 2016 by telescoper

After an even more stressful day than usual I decided to have a quick look at Youtube before going home. That’s how I found this rare and priceless gem. It’s a wonderful performance of All of Me featuring one of the greatest combinations of musical talent in Jazz history, Billie Holiday and Lester Young, but it’s a discarded track that was never released on record. “Why would anyone discard such a masterpiece?”, I hear you ask. Well, that’s simply because it ran over the three minutes that could fit onto an old-style 78rpm disk. The reason it is too long is that there’s more than the usual ration of Lester Young’s tenor saxophone, in the form of a superb extended solo that is so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. This is as perfect a performance as you could hope to hear, but it is brought back down to Earth at the end by the recording engineer whose only comment from the box when the exquisite music subsides is “It’s a bit long”…




Stormy Weather (Billie Holiday)

Posted in Jazz with tags , on January 26, 2016 by telescoper


The Top 10 Jazz Artists

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on December 8, 2015 by telescoper

Back from a short break I thought I’d mention that BBC Radio 3 recently announced the results of a poll for the top Jazz artist of all time. The result was:

  1. Miles Davis
  2. Louis Armstrong
  3. Duke Ellington
  4. John Coltrane
  5. Ella Fitzgerald
  6. Charlie Parker
  7. Billie Holiday
  8. Thelonious Monk (8=)
  9. Bill Evans (8=)
  10. Oscar Peterson

Although my ordering would have been a little different, I was quite surprised that the top 10 corresponded so closely with my own selection. In fact 8 of the above list would have made it into mine: Miles Davis; Louis Armstrong; John Coltrane; Charlie Parker; Billie Holiday; Thelonious Monk; and Bill Evans.

The only differences were that (a) I couldn’t possibly have had Billie Holiday without having Lester Young and (b) I simply had to have Ornette Coleman in there. To accommodate Messrs Young and Coleman I would have displaced Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. The latter are great artists, of course, but I wouldn’t say either influenced the development of Jazz as much as the others I mentioned, and that’s one of the criteria I applied.


No surprise that Miles Davis (above) came top. He changed musical direction so many times that he should actually count as four or five different musicians. It’s no coincidence that Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans all appeared on Kind of Blue, which is arguably the greatest jazz record of all time. I don’t think any serious Jazz enthusiast could have left out Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk either. And of course, Louis Armstrong just had to be there too. It’s hard to imagine what Jazz would have been without Satchmo. The same goes for the great Duke Ellington.

Anyway, it’s all a matter of personal choice. There are dozens of great jazz artists who didn’t make it into the top ten. Among my near misses were Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Eric Dolphy and Dizzy Gillespie.

Who else would you have picked?


Lover Man

Posted in Jazz, Literature with tags , , , on October 3, 2012 by telescoper

I huddled in the cold, rainy wind and watched everything across the sad vineyards of October in the valley. My mind was filled with that great song “Lover Man” as Billie Holiday sings it; I had my own concert in the bushes. “Someday we’ll meet, and you’ll dry all my tears, and whisper sweet, little things in my ear, hugging and a-kissing, oh what we’ve been missing, Lover Man, oh where can you be …” It’s not the words so much as their great harmonic tune and the way Billie sings it, like a woman stroking her man’s hair in soft lamplight.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road.

Round Midnight

Posted in Music with tags , , on July 25, 2011 by telescoper

During the afternoon’s play at the Test Match on Saturday I picked up on Twitter the sad news of the death, at the age of 27, of singer Amy Winehouse, an event which susbsequently stirred up the internet pondlife as much and as tastelessly as the actions of Anders Behring Breivik.  I don’t really follow pop music much these days, but Amy Winehouse caught my ear when she recorded a version of the Thelonious Monk jazz classic Round Midnight and I was impressed that she had taken on such challenging material, although the track itself is horribly overproduced.

For what it’s worth I think that Amy Winehouse was an exceptionally talented singer, in an age that celebrates mediocrity rather than talent, although she sadly never came to terms with her addictions to drugs and alcohol. I feel sadness at her passing, not least because her potential remained largely unfulfilled. For those who cling to the belief that taking drugs somehow accompanies or even enhances musical ability, I can only offer this quote from another supremely gifted but tragically dissolute singer, Billie Holiday:

Dope never helped anybody sing better or play music better or do anything better. All dope can do for you is kill you – and kill you the long, slow, hard, way.

Billie was 44 when she died, so she lasted longer than Amy, but they trod a similar path. Both made great music despite, and in no way because of, being drug addicts.

As well as sadness, though, I also feel disgust, as much for the vultures picking over Amy Winehouse’s remains after her death as for the parasites that profited from her addiction during her life.  No addict can be cured of his or her addiction by another person – one has to take control of oneself in order to do that – but that does not make it right to simply mock a junkie as the newspapers did relentlessly with Amy Winehouse, willing the car crash to happen. Well, it worked. She’s dead now. I hope they’re proud.

Amy Winehouse’s life and death represent a kind of Shakespearean tragedy, in that her character contained the seeds of its own destruction and that her life seems largely to have been acted out for the “enjoyment” of others. I hope  her death serves as a warning to those youngsters who have been tempted to emulate her.  There are enough dangers in the world without being a danger to yourself.

Rest in Peace, Amy Winehouse (1983-2011).

Fine and Mellow

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , on November 23, 2008 by telescoper

I’ve been off sick for the last few days with a nasty bug, but at least it’s given me the chance to listen to quite a lot of music. Yesterday, I was playing some of the classic recordings made in the 1930s by singer Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young. I’ve had these for ages but for some reason haven’t listened to them for a while. Coming back to them after a long break just strengthened my belief that they are amongst the greatest recordings ever made in music of any kind.

Billie Holiday was born in Baltimore in 1915. After a grim and traumatic childhood she dabbled with prostitution and then ended up as a night club singer where she was spotted by talent scout John Hammond who arranged for her to make recordings with Benny Goodman‘s Orchestra in 1933. Most people don’t realise this but, by 1935, this band was a pop sensation on exactly the same scale as, say, the Beatles were to achieve three decades later.

In her early recording career, Billie wasn’t so well known so she was given relatively unpromising songs to sing. With her unique sense of phrasing, and a willingness to take outrageous liberties with both melody and rhythm, she turned out to be brilliant at turning this base metal into gold; some he was undoubtedly the best singer of a bad song there has ever been. If you ever get the chance to hear her versions of When you’re smiling or Back in your own Backyard you can marvel at how she manages to say everything about life and death using only the slenderest of lyrics.

Also featuring on both of these classic tracks was the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Nicknamed “The President”, or “Prez” for short, he was one of the greatest of all Jazz musicians. He had a sublime gift for melodic improvisations, coupled to unrivalled sense of sheer swing as befits a mainstay of Count Basie‘s magnificently propulsive big band of the late 1930s. The sound of Lester Young at full throttle with the Basie Band riffing away behind him must have been truly magnificent to hear live and is thrilling enough on record.

Although he wasn’t at all averse to a bit of rabble rousing, and loved to see people dancing as he played, Lester Young’s solos on the Billie Holiday recordings mentioned above showed the delicate side of his nature. People often say is that the reason the two of them worked so well together musically was that they had similar sense of phrasing. I don’t agree with that at all. Billie Holiday’s vocal style sound to be more like a feminine version of Louis Armstrong’s, derived from a trumpeter’s mannerisms rather than those of a saxophonist.

Lester Young and Billie Holiday became very close friends during this period, although there is no sign that they had any form of sexual relationship. Rumours have circulated that Lester Young was gay, although I don’t think there’s any evidence to back them up. It is true that he had a rather eccentric and perhaps effeminate demeanour, but it seems that’s just the way he was. During the war, Lester Young was conscripted into the US Army and this had a dreadful effect on him personally and on his career, not least because he wasn’t allowed to play his saxophone at all. The strict discipline and macho posturing of the army affected this gentle and introverted man very badly and drove him to a nervous breakdown. He was eventually discharged from the army and, although he started playing again, his career never regained the heights it had reached in the 1930s. He had frequent bouts of ill health owing to alcoholism and drug abuse and his recordings from the late forties and fifties are of uneven quality.

Billie Holiday’s career was also in decline during the 1940s, after she became addicted to heroin, and she was imprisoned on drugs charges in 1947. Cigarettes, booze and hard drugs ravaged her voice and, although she made a number of classic records in the 1950s, her vocal style was sometimes mannered and self-conscious. I definitely prefer the earlier recordings which show her at her most original. That said, there was one song from George Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess that invariably inspired her to an intensely moving performance, including this sensational recording made just five months before her death in 1959.

But the reason for putting this all on my blog was that playing through these old records I remembered when I used to listen to Humphrey Lyttelton‘s Jazz programme on the radio. He once admitted on the air that there was a TV recording involving Billie Holiday and Lester Young that he couldn’t watch without bursting into tears. The programme “Sounds of Jazz” was made by CBS Television in the United States in 1957 and features a vast array of great musicians, including Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. But this excerpt is the bit that always got Humph going, and I don’t wonder why.

Lester and Billie had at one time been very close indeed, but had become estranged for some reason, and hadn’t recorded together for the best part of twenty years before this. Time had exacted its toll on both of them. Prez, in fact, was very ill during this broadcase and he looks it. Barely able to stand or hold the horn, when he plays he still manages to deliver a moving and poignant solo. The camera cuts to Billie’s reaction, full of tenderness and empathy and the emotional effect is overwhelming. So intense is that moment that you tend to forget the other magnificent players on this track (including Coleman Hawkins, the other leading saxophonist of the 1930s whose style was very different, but whom Lester Young deeply admired). As Nat Hentoff later recalled

Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been — whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.

Lester Young died in March 1959, a little over a year after this performance. In a taxi returning home from his funeral, Billie told a friend that she thought she would be the next. She died in July the same year.