Sunday, September 14, 2014

Another Look At The Strange, Sorrowful and Sad Life of Billie Holiday [From the Archives]

“I loved her. It was almost like she grew to be a part of me. Her insides were her outsides, you know? When she passed I was crying, not crying with sorrow, but crying because she was at peace at last. It was so beautiful, she gave so much feeling, it was overwhelming.”
- Shirley Horn [vocalist and song stylist]

“A great woman, very cool, and the hippest thing I ever knew.”
Etta James [vocalist and song stylist] 

“How many Billie Holidays are there and which do you prefer? Elated or dour, funny or truculent, sweet or sour, our Lady of Sorrows or 52nd Street’s Queen, early Billie or late, Billie of hope or Billy or heartache, Billie with Pres or with strings, Lady Day or Lady Nightmare or Lady in Ermine, Lady Be Good, Lady in Red, Lady Luck, Lady Blue, Lady Divine, the Lady Who Swings the Band, Lady Mine – crank up the record machine, listen closely and take your choice.

For Billie Holiday is one of those exceptional artists whose work is a perfect tuning fork for our own inclinations. She echoes our emotions, rehabilitates our innocence, cauterizes our nerves.

That she managed so capacious a vision with her slim vocal range and infinite capacity for nurturing demons is a miracle to which generations of interpreters have been and will continue to be drawn. The greatest art never loses its mystery. The better we know hers, the more dreamlike and sensational it seems.”
- Gary Giddins

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I had a fleeting look at singer Billie Holiday, once.

It came in the form of her appearance of The Sound of Jazz, a CBS television “Seven Lively Arts” special that was broadcast on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 1957.

Our television set was positioned in the living room of a third floor bay window out which one could see the streets, tenements and church bell towers in what has now become the fashionable Federal Hill area of ProvidenceRI.

It was a dreary day with skies that darkened and became very foreboding the way late afternoons could often, suddenly become during early New England winters [these also stayed late].

After two, stirring performances of Traditional or Dixieland Jazz by trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen’s All-Stars, the camera turned to Billie who was seated on a stool with members of pianist Mal Waldron’s group standing behind her and off to her left.

Suddenly, everything on the television screen looked and sounded as though it had become sluggish and subsumed by the murky mood of the day.

When the TV cameras focused on Billie, the view from the television screen appeared to go into slow motion.  In this they were aided and abetted by Billie enunciation’s as her singing was languid, almost lethargic.

The TV cameras panned around the standing musicians in an unhurried manner and tenor saxophonists Lester Young, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins along with trumpeter “Doc” Cheatham and trombonist Vic Dickenson all took solos interspersed around Billie’s singing that were measured, bordering on being belabored.

Earlier that summer, I had attended the Newport [RI] Jazz Festival and loved being amidst the music and the musicians in what seemed like one continually joyous celebration of life.

But while watching and listening to Billie, I was struck by how strange, sad and sorrowful the music could become.

At the time, I was too young to realize that the television program was trying to achieve a “primitive” aura or that strange, sad and sorrowful were indeed an accurate description of Billie Holiday’s short-lived life [she died two years later in 1959 at the age of 44!].

Some months after Billie’s death, I purchased an issue of The New Yorker magazine and a record album of the music from The Sound of Jazz.. Whitney Balliett’s savvy writing in the former and Eric Larrabee’s liner notes to the latter offered me details about Billie television performance that provided a deeper understanding of what I had witnessed that dreary day in December 1957.

We thought we’d share Whitney and Eric’s essays with you, along with a video tribute to Billie which concludes this piece, as a way of remembering the role that Billie Holiday played in shaping The Sound of Jazz.

© -Whitney Balliett/Lippincott/The New Yorker Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved [paragraphing modified].

Miss Holiday

“Toward the end of her life, Billie Holiday, who died last summer, at the age of forty-four, had be­come inextricably caught in a tangle of notoriety and fame. It was compounded of an endless series of skirmishes with the police and the courts (she was shamelessly arrested on her deathbed for the alleged possession of narcotics); the bitter, vindic­tive, self-pitying image of herself established in her autobiography, published in 1956—a to-hell-with-you image that tended to repel rather than attract compassion; and the fervent adulation still granted her by a diminishing but ferocious band of admirers. Her new listeners must have been puzzled by all this turmoil, for she sang during much of the fifties with a heavy, unsteady voice that sometimes gave the im­pression of being pushed painfully in front of her, like a medicine ball. She seemed, in fact, to be em­battled with every song she tackled.

Nonetheless, her admirers were not mad. Between 1935, when she popped out of nowhere, and 1940, Miss Holi­day had knocked a good portion of the jazz world on its ear with a hundred or so recordings, several dozen of which rank with the greatest of non-classi­cal vocal efforts. Part of the success of these record­ings, which have an uncanny balance of ease, con­trol, unself-consciousness, emotion, and humor, is due to the accompaniment provided by small bands made up of men like Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman, and Teddy Wilson. Though their work—in obbligatos that underline the grace of her voice, in exemplary solos, and in tumbling, laughing ensembles—often takes up as much space as the vocals, it is Miss Holiday who continues to astonish.

Until she appeared, genuine jazz singing had been practiced largely by a myriad of often obscure blues singers led by Bessie Smith, and by a handful of instrumentalists led by Louis Armstrong. Bessie Smith leveled a massive lyricism at limited materials, while Armstrong's coalyard rumblings, though ir­resistible in themselves, occasionally seemed to have little to do with singing. Distilling and mixing the best of her predecessors with her own high talents, Billie Holiday became the first full-fledged jazz singer (and, with the defection in recent years of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, possibly the last). She could sing anything, and her style was completely her own. She appeared to play her voice rather than sing with it. In addition to a hornlike control of melody and rhythm, she had an affecting contralto that took on innumerable timbres: a dark-brown sound, sometimes fretted by growls or hoarseness, in the lower register; a pliable oboe tone in the high register; and a clear, pushing, little-girl alto in between.

Her style came in three subtly dif­ferent parts. There was one for ephemeral popular songs, one for the more durable efforts of George Gershwin and his peers, and one for the blues. Since she was primarily an improviser, not an in­terpreter, she was often most striking when han­dling pop songs, like "Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town," "It's Too Hot for Words," and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," which she spattered with a mocking, let's-have-some-fun-with-this air. Thus, at a fast tempo, she might loll back in half time, and not only elongate each word, so that it seemed nothing but vowels, but flatten the melody into a near-monotone of four or five notes. Then, in the last eight bars or so, she would suddenly pounce on the beat, pick up the melody, and close in a here-I-am rush. (If the evil was in her she might stomp such a number all the way through, rocking it relentlessly back and forth and coating it with dead-serious growls.) At slow tempos, she would use the full range of her voice, adding exaggerated smears to her phrases or dotting them with series of laughlike staccato notes. At the same time, she was busy fashioning a deceptively simple and thor­ough melodic variation on the tune, smoothing its wrinkles, toughening up its soft spots, and lending it far more lyricism than it usually deserved. This was accomplished not by superimposing melodic candelabra on her material, in the manner of Sarah Vaughan and her baroque students, but by unob­trusively altering its melodic and rhythmic structure with a flow of marvelously placed phrases that might wander around behind the beat, and then suddenly push ahead of it (each syllable urgently pinned to a staccato note) or slide through legato curves full of blue notes and generous vibratos. Miss Holiday's rhythmic sense had much in common with Lester Young's, who would sooner have gone into another line of work than place a note convention­ally. Moreover, her enunciation of pop songs was a mixture of clarity and caricature, bringing into action that rule of ridicule that the victim be reproduced perfectly before being destroyed. Her "moon"s and "June"s rang like bells, and one didn't hear their cracks until the sound began to die away. The com­posers of the pop songs she sang should be grateful; her renditions ("Ooo-ooo-ooo/ What a lil moon-laight can do-oo-oo"), and not the songs, are what we remember.

Her approach to Gershwin and such was almost reverent in comparison. In a number like "Summer­time," she allowed the emotion that she had spent on lesser materials in sarcasm or near-flippancy to come through undisguised. Ceaselessly inventive, she would still shape the melody to fit her voice and mood, but in such a way that its beauties—and not hers—were pointed up. (The number of popular singers, to say nothing of jazz singers, who have been able to slip inside their material, instead of plodding along beside it, is remarkably small.) "Summertime" became a pure lullaby, "But Not for Me" a self-joshing lament, and "Porgy" a prayer. When there were superior lyrics on hand, she under­lined them with a diction and an understanding that shunted the meaning of each word forward. More than that, she would, at her best, lend a first-rate song a new and peculiarly heightened emotion that, one suddenly realized, its composer had only been reaching for. And the effort never showed.

Miss Holiday simply let go when she sang the blues. She was never, however, a loud singer, nor did she depend on the big whisper of most of her mi­crophone-reared successors; instead, she projected her voice firmly, keeping in steady balance her enunciation, timbre, and phrasing. She was, in fact, a model elocutionist. Free of the more complex structures of the standard popular song, she moved through the innumerable emotional pastures of the form, ranging from the down-and-out to the joyous to the nasty and biting to quiet, almost loving blues.

Then, in 1944, when Miss Holiday started re­cording again (after the recording bans), the magic had begun to vanish. Perhaps it was the increasing strain of her private life, or the mysterious rigor mortis that so often freezes highly talented but un­trained and basically intuitive performers. At any rate, she had become self-conscious. Although her voice had improved in resonance and control, her style had grown mannered. She ended her phrases with disconcerting, lachrymose dips. She struggled with her words instead of batting them about or savoring them. The melodic twists and turns lost their spontaneity. One could accurately predict her rhythmic patterns.

Even her beauty—the huge gar­denia clamped to the side of her head; the high, flashing cheekbones; the almost motionless body, the snapping fingers, and the thrown-back head; the mobile mouth, which seemed to measure the emo­tional shape and texture of each word—implied careful calculation. From time to time, some of this stylization lifted—she never, of course, lost her presence, which became more and more melancholy —and there were glimpses of her old naturalness. After 1950, her voice grew deeper and coarser, and her sense of pitch and phrasing eluded her, and finally she became that most rending of spectacles —a once great performer doing a parody of herself that could have been bettered by her inferiors. Her still devoted partisans clamored on; they would have done her greater service by doffing their hats and remaining silent. …”

© -Eric Larrabee/Harper and Bros./Harper Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The best thing that ever happened to television happened on CBS between five and six in the afternoon on Sunday, December 8. At least that was where and when it happened first; the pro­gram may have been run at a different hour and date in your part of the country, and—if there is any justice—it will be repeated, the more often the better. It was an installment in "The Seven Lively Arts" series called "The Sound of Jazz," and as far as I'm concerned you can throw away all previous standards of comparison. This is where live television began to amount to some­thing.

It was opened and closed, and from time to time interrupted, by John Crosby as "host," but mostly it was musicians playing jazz—in a bare studio, dressed in whatever they liked (hats, sweat shirts, it didn't matter), smoking, talking to one another, or just walking around. Each group was introduced and then away it went, with time enough (in nearly all cases) to get the music going, while the camera roamed over the faces of participants and spectators. There were no phony or elaborate explanations. As the executive pro­ducer, Jack Houseman, remarked approvingly to the music critic Virgil Thomson, during the dress rehearsal: "This is the first program about jazz that doesn't say it started in New Orleans and then went up the river."

Technically "The Sound of Jazz" gave the appearance of being very (as they say on the Avenue) "primitive." You knew that you were in a studio and that these people were being televised. If it sounded better to have a micro­phone right in front of a man's face, there the microphone would be; and if one cameraman got in another's way he didn't scurry ashamedly out of it. But this impromptu effect, of course, took a deal of contriving. The musicians couldn't be­lieve at first that hats were really okay, and Billie Holiday had to be persuaded to appear in slacks and pony-tail instead of the gown she had spe­cially planned on. The air of casualness was in fact the end product of months of work.

THIS milestone was primarily made possible by Houseman, his assistant Robert Goldman, and the producer for this show, Robert Herridge, who had the unbelievable courage and good sense to hire good taste and turn it loose. They found two jazz critics with some ideas, Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff, and after the usual round of con­ferences and memos, gave them complete artistic control. Balliett and Hentoff, from the start, had the kind of program in mind that they eventually produced—one that would concentrate on music. When I asked Balliett at what point they had decided in favor of visual realism and informality, he thought a moment and said, "I don't think it ever occurred to us to do it any other way."

They got the musicians they wanted, whether currently well known or not and whether or not "485" (the address on Madison of the Columbia front office) would have made the same choice. They were able to assemble combinations of musicians whose booking arrangements usually keep them apart, and also let an old-timer like Pee Wee Russell play side by side with a modern­ist like Jimmy Giuffre. The name of one performer made "485" nervous, but Balliett and Hentoff put their feet down—and they won. Let it be written that as of 1957 there was still some decency left, and somebody willing to fight for it.

As "The Sound of Jazz" came into the final weeks before air-time, it began to make other people uneasy, and for better reasons. Since there was so little of the normal panic on the surface, everybody panicked inside. The director, Jack Smight, found that he was twice as jumpy with­out actors around to worry about; and when "485" found out in the last few days that there really wasn't any script to speak of it began to emit angry noises: "What are you doing down there?" Balliett and Hentoff could only answer that everything was going to be fine, the musi­cians would turn up, and there would be some music. They hoped this was true.

THEY needn't have worried. If you were lucky enough to have seen "The Sound of Jazz" I don't have to tell you how great it was and, even if you weren't, what I'd want to do anyway is sell you an explanation of why it was great. The cornerstone of live television, class will please now repeat, is the human face—with its spon­taneity and tension, its halo of contradictions, its hints of life lived and life to come. Of course the TV camera is merciless; it draws on the person behind the face for all the resources that it can find there. It is not one eye but millions of eyes; it has high expectations and asks that the person before it be poised in the balance, somehow challenged or tested, so as to bring forth the most meanings from the ever-changing interplay of expressions in the face.

What made the jazz musicians extraordinary, when the camera put their features through its harsh examination, was how much it found there. Children and animals make the best movie actors, as Douglas Fairbanks said, because they are un-self-conscious and unable to fake. No more could these musicians be anything but themselves, for they are committed to independence and to a headlong attack on the cosmos. It showed; here— and no kidding—were individuals of stature and profundity, of flesh and substance, of warmth and bite. The music was good, yes, but what lifted "The Sound of Jazz" to a level hitherto un-attained was the sight of it being made. As a lady in White Plains sat down and wrote CBS as soon as the show was over, one so seldom has the chance "to see real people doing something that really matters to them."

Neither Balliett nor Hentoff expected the visual effect to be as sensational as it was. They knew that director Jack Smight "dug" jazz, but they would never have dared anticipate the deft and intricate camera work that enabled him to cut from one shot to another as skillfully as though he were a movie editor, working with developed film instead of a live show. The cameramen simply outdid themselves (for the record, and giving them a credit line they should have had on the air, they were Bob Heller, Harold Classen, Joe Sokota, Jack Brown, and Marty Tuck). Balliett and Hentoff's long and careful planning had made it possible for the musicians to extemporize; now the cameramen and director could extemporize too, with the freedom to smudge the edges—leave that head half in the way—of practiced talent, the artistic intelligence that dares to risk a blunder because it knows precisely what it is doing. Jazz is like that, and as a result the two effects of "The Sound of Jazz"—on the eye and on the ear—were miraculously in tune with each other.

NOW there is talk not only of a repeat but of a series, and no one could better deserve it than this new-found team. But one wonders if the miracle can happen twice. Part of the reason that Balliett and Hentoff were let alone was that no one in high authority really understood what they were up to. Now the secret is out and thpre will be many hazards. As I sat with them in producer Robert Herridge's office, going over the first day's mail, the phone rang and Herridge answered it. He listened, laughed explosively, and hung up. "Lawrence Welk," he said, "de­mands equal time."

Copyright, 1958, by Harper and Brothers. Reprinted by permission from Harper's Magazine.”

The personnel and solo sequence for the Billie Holiday video tribute are -

Fine and Mellow—Billie Holiday with Mai Waldron All-Stars including: Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, tenor sax; Doc Cheatham, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Mai Waldron, piano; Jo Jones, drums; Danny Barker, guitar; Jim Atlas, bass.
1st chorus: Holiday
2nd chorus: Young
3rd chorus: Webster
4th chorus: Holiday
5th chorus: Cheatham
6th chorus: Hawkins
7th chorus: Holiday
8th chorus: Dickenson
9th chorus: Holiday
10th chorus: Holiday

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