She held court at Pod and Jerry’s on 133rd, The Ebony Club and Bop City on Broadway or The Alhambra Club up in Harlem. Much of it legend, memories lost in smoke and bourbon, lies that seemed fair enough, facts that were too hard to take. If it seems like scene in a movie it was.
Out of total darkness she’d step into a small circle of light, tap out a beat in peek-toe stilettos only to be ignored by her own painted lips. Her trademark stance, head cocked, eyes closed, she languishes half a beat, one beat, maybe five beats behind the band. She’d “bend” a phrase like a rapper, clip an ending, draw-out syllables, on time, off time, studiously riding the melody then shaking it off when it failed to serve her message. This was the house she owned and these were rules she made.
Before critical analysis became so dependent on the singer-songwriter, we celebrated vocal genius and Billie Holiday set the standard. She altered our sense of rhythm, took liberties with the melody and structured a phrase like no one ever had (save, perhaps, her hero Louis Armstrong). If Armstrong was her patriarch, Sinatra was surely her prodigy. The term “standard” was virtually meaningless once Holiday worked a song into entirely new and personal entitiy.
And yet, her story remains as big as her sound, the story, important, irresistible and simplistic. It’s a story of rape and abuse, poverty, racism, justice turned malignant, prosecution for sport, suffering, self-medicating and dying. It was best-selling book and a movie that earned 5 academy award nominations, more commercially successful than anything Holiday herself had ever done.
Stories though, in the pantheon American music, are made by men. Women are made by them. It’s hard to imagine anyone casting Hank Williams, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, or any of the legends who suffered, self-medicated and died in the process, as products of circumstance. Hardship, abject hardship, not withstanding, each demonstrated technique that was intentional, cultivated and crafted. No one looks beyond their own genius to explain their impact on American culture.
The Jazz Encyclopedia refers to the collision of art and tragedy in Holiday’s life as an immutable whole. It goes to quote famous Jazz critics who, with the greatest affection, claim her failing pipes made her later recordings all more evocative. The long-standing take is that emotional authenticity more than cultivated technique solidified her status. But this gives too much weight to circumstance and, for me, not enough respect to her true genius.
Cynthia Folio and Robert Weisberg at Temple University actually took on this issue a few years ago. In a complex destruction of Holiday’s timing and phrasing, they looked at multiple recordings of the same song. In some cases, a song had been recorded five times including studio and live performances. They mapped out the timing, phrasing and melodic alterations from the earliest recordings (at her peak range and tone) through her final recordings. The study demonstrated that very little was circumstantial in Holiday’s performances. Her technique was consistent and calculated throughout.
Today, on what would have been her 100th birthday, it’s worth considering that circumstance did not make Billie Holiday’s music important. She did.