Monday, July 18, 2022

Pleasants Holiday - Billie Holiday by Henry Pleasants

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“As muse and ancestor, metaphor and myth, Billie Holiday lingers in lines of poetry and pages and pages of prose. She appears in genres as diverse as literary criticism, novels, plays, poems and autobiography. There is even a comic book devoted to her. Writers find her attractive for a number of reasons, not the least of which is her own artistic accomplishment. Her ability to communicate and to weave narratives through her interpretation of popular songs makes her a first rate storyteller. Her phrasing, her deconstruction of melodies, her timbre and timing make her something of a poet as well.

In the beautiful essay "A Solo Long-Song: For Lady Day," novelist and essayist Leon Forrest likens Holiday's art to literature: "Like Papa Hemingway*" writes Forrest, "Lady Day was one of the great stylists of modern American twentieth-century art. In both cases, the actual style was extremely deceptive. Simple on the surface, yet rich with colorations, illusions, nuances, and contradictions when you commenced to unveil the layers." 

If Forrest's Lady is like Hemingway, she is also foremother to the great black women writers who emerged in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. For, according to him, writers such as Toni Morrison share with Holiday the ability to express the "human condition as seen through the specificity of the black female experience and transform it into a haunting art that [is] spiritual at its base."”

- Farah Jasmine Griffin

“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 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

The following is from The Great American Singers [1974] by Henry Pleasants. Himself a trained musician and esteemed literary critic, Henry offers observations, insights and specific examples that help explain what made Billie Holiday, despite very little in the way of vocal tools to work with, one of the most significant vocalists in the early history of Jazz.

Mr. Pleasants established a standard for writing about Jazz and popular vocal music that continued to inspire other writers on that subject including, James Gavin, Will Friedwald and Gene Lees.

“Certain leads or opening sentences to articles or books stick in one's mind. I have always remembered and cherished, for example, the opening sentence of Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche: "He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." It was my favorite until I opened Billie Holiday's Lady Sings the Blues and read: "Ma and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three."

This was more than just a flip gambit. It established immediately the setting and background for one of the most troubled careers in the annals of American music. The book traces, with significant candor, not only the professional life of a great singer, but also a sordid history of adolescent prostitution and subsequent drug addiction, the scene switching back and forth between more or less prestigious nightclubs, supper clubs, theaters and auditoriums to police courts, reformatories, sanatoriums and jails.

Billie Holiday made a lot of news, most of it bad. She made and spent a lot of money. Her two-hundred-odd records constitute a legacy of much that was finest in her era of jazz, a precious documentation of her own unique art as a singer and of the art of the splendid musicians, both white and black, who worked with her. But it was her losing struggle with adversity, bad luck, and personal weaknesses and inadequacies, rather than her hoarsely eloquent voice and her way with a phrase or a song, that made her a legend in her own time.

She is to be numbered among the self-destructive waifs of modern musical history, along with Mildred Bailey, Bix Beiderbecke, Judy Garland, Charlie Parker, Edith Piaf, Bessie Smith and Hank Williams. They were all gifted beyond the lot even of those destined to become the most accomplished professionals. But they were denied the compensatory attributes of self-knowledge and self-discipline, prerequisites for survival in the merciless world of show biz. Toward the end of Billie Holiday's career, a magazine asked her for the "real lowdown inside story of her life." She summed it up in a single sentence. "I wish," she wrote, in Lady Sings the Blues, "I knew it myself."

She didn't know it. But both her book, written with William Dufty, and her work on records offer clues. From the book, for example:

“It's a wonder my mother didn't end up in the workhouse and me as a foundling. But Sadie Fagan loved me from the time I was just a swift kick in the ribs while she scrubbed floors. She went to the hospital and made a deal with the head woman there. She told them she'd scrub floors and wait on the other bitches laying up there to have their kids so she could pay her way and mine. And she did. Mom was thirteen that Wednesday, April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, when I was born.”

It’s an eloquent paragraph, not just because it tells a story of desperate nobility so simply and so affectionately, but also because it projects succinctly and ingeniously the juxtaposition of feigned or ingrained toughness and vulgarity on the one hand, and on the other, the real pride and tenderness that characterized and complicated Billie Holiday's public and private performance throughout the forty-four years of her life.

Her vocabulary was as unoriginal and unimaginative as it was coarse. Women were bitches, girls were chicks, lesbians were dikes, musicians were cats, money was loot, whores were whores and policemen were fuzz. To be arrested was to be busted. This from the singer who was known throughout most of her professional life as Lady Day, or Lady, for short.

Her Christian name was Eleanora, but her father, Clarence Holiday, a jazz musician, called her Bill because she was such a tomboy. She changed it to Billie after Billie Dove, her idol on the silent-movie screens of her childhood. "Lady" was conferred upon her early in her public career by the other girls at Jerry Preston's Log Cabin in Harlem when she refused to pick up tips from customers' tables without using her hands. Lester Young, then playing tenor in Fletcher Henderson's band, and who later played some of his most beautiful choruses behind her, combined it with the "day" of Holiday to make Lady Day. She returned the compliment by calling him "Prez," thus putting him on a pedestal alongside another of her idols, President Roosevelt.

Max Jones, veteran critic of Melody Maker, saw behind the mask when he met her, wrapped from head to foot in blue mink, at a London airport in 

1954. "She was outspoken, bright, tough and transparently sincere most of the time," he wrote not long afterwards. "She was obviously an imposing woman, an inch or two taller than I had expected, with a strong, well-boned face and a lot of natural magnetism and dignity."

The operative word is dignity. She had it. She could not always sustain it, least of all when it was overlooked, ignored, offended or defied by others. Thanks in part, no doubt, to an Irish (Pagan) great grandfather on her mother's side, she had a low boiling point. Exposed to real or imagined slights, she could respond in an undignified fashion, sometimes with her fists, sometimes with any hard movable object within reach.

Louis Armstrong characterized her for the benefit of the producer, director and stage crew on the set of New Orleans in Hollywood in 1946, when Lady Day, unhappy at being cast as a maid, but unable to escape her contract, broke into tears. "Better look out," said Pops. "I know Lady, and when she starts crying, the next thing she's going to do is start fighting."

Many elements in the Billie Holiday story recall the career of Ethel Waters. Both were children of the Northern slums. Both were born illegitimately to slum children, and both were grownups before they were even properly adolescent. Ethel was first married, it will be recalled, when she was thirteen. Billie was raped when she was ten. Both did menial work, Ethel as scullery and chambermaid, Billie scrubbing the famous white steps of Baltimore's brick row houses.Both served a rough, tough apprenticeship as singers in the swinging gin mills of prohibition Harlem.

More significantly, perhaps, both tasted Jim Crow under circumstances more galling, even, than those experienced by their less renowned black contemporaries. They had to endure the outrage of being admired, even loved, by whites as artists while being directed to the tradesmen's entrance and excluded from hotels, dining rooms and restaurants as persons. They earned well. They were accorded many privileges normally denied black Americans at that time. But their apparent good fortune only made the facts of black life seem blacker.

Billie Holiday had an especially grueling time of it as the first black vocalist to be featured with a white band. The year was 1938. The band was Artie Shaw's. As she remembered it nearly twenty years later:

“It wasn't long before the roughest days with the Basie band began to look like a breeze. It got to the point where I hardly ever ate, slept or went to the bathroom without having a major NAACP-type production.

Most of the cats in the band were wonderful to me, but I got so tired of scenes in crummy roadside restaurants over getting served, I used to beg Georgie Auld, Tony Pastor and Chuck Peterson to just let me sit in the bus and rest — and let them bring out something in a sack. Some places they wouldn't even let me eat in the kitchen. Sometimes it was a choice between me eating and the whole band starving. I got tired of having a federal case over breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Continual humiliation on this order left both Billie and Ethel, to use their own terminology, salty. Ethel was the stronger character of the two, certainly the more self-reliant. Billie fought, and fought hard, both against society and against the person that society had made of her. But there was something pathetic about the performance. The odds against her were too great.

Lena Home came to know her well in New York in the early 1940s, when Billie was working at Kelly's Stable and Lena at Cafe Society Downtown, and as she remembered her in Lena;

“Her life was so tragic and so corrupted by other people — by white people and by her own people. There was no place for her to go, except, finally, into that little private world of dope. She was just too sensitive to survive. And such a gentle person. We never talked much about singing. The thing I remember talking to her about most was her dogs; her animals were really her only trusted friends.”

Small wonder that she was, as an admiring white singer once said of her to me, "a hard one to get through to."

Her career and Ethel Waters', after Harlem, differed considerably and significantly. Their respective ages had something to do with it. Ethel, twenty years older than Billie, was early enough on the scene to make a career in both black and white vaudeville, a preparation that revealed the talent and established the professional accomplishments for her subsequent triumphs as an actress in Mamba's Daughters and The Member of the Wedding.

Ethel was, in any case, far more a woman of the theater than Lady Day, not only in terms of experience, but also in terms of disposition and predilection, and it showed in her singing. In just about every song that Ethel Waters ever sang she projected a character. Hers was, indeed, an art of characterization, whether she was playing a part or singing a song. Billie Holiday never projected anybody but Billie. This was reflected even in her stage deportment. She had no routine. As Martin Williams remembered her in an article for Jazz Journal, "Billie Holiday — Actress Without an Act," "she came out, sang, bowed and left — no vaudeville showmanship."

The article is misleading only in the title. It might better have been called "An Act Without an Actress." But it wasn't even an act — discounting the white dress, the white gardenia and, as she ruefully appended to her own description of her stage appearance, the white junk. It was just Lady Day, who was Billie Holiday. Her way with a song was to take it apart and put it together again in her own image.

Even the image would change with the circumstances of the moment and according to her mood and passing fancy. "I hate straight singing," she used to say. "I have to change a tune to my way of doing it. That's all I know." Her way of doing it changed, too: "I can't stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain't music; it's close-order drill, or exercise, or yodeling or something, not music."

There were other reasons why she changed the music. She had to fit a song not only to herself, to her state of mind and body, and to an extraordinarily acute sense of style, but also to a meager voice— small, hoarse at the bottom and thinly shrill at the top, with top and bottom never very far apart. She had hardly more than an octave and a third. She worked, as a rule, as Bessie Smith had worked, within an octave, tailoring the melody to fit the congenial span.

Given these physical limitations, what she achieved in terms of color, shadings, nuances and articulation, and in terms of the variety of sound and inflection she could summon from such slender resources, may be counted among the wonders of vocal history. She did it by moving, with somnambulistic security, along — or back and forth across — the thin, never precisely definable, line separating, or joining, speech and song.

This accomplishment, or ambiguity, has always been characteristic of the greatest blues singers. In this respect, Billie Holiday was a child of Bessie Smith, although she rarely sang a traditional blues. Her 1936 recording of "Billie's Blues" gives us a glimpse of what a blues singer she might have been had she chosen to be one.

Playing back to back the records made by Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday at about the same time in the early 1930s, one notes how much closer Ethel Waters was to Broadway. She was more versatile, more professional and, stylistically, whiter. Ethel was of a generation of black vaudeville and recording artists greatly influenced by the white headliners of the time—Nora Bayes, Ruth Etting, Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker. Played today, her records sound a bit dated. They are certainly easy to date.

In those years, Billie Holiday, then in her late teens and early twenties, seemed untouched by Broadway and showbiz. She probably was. The only vocal models she ever acknowledged were Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. As a child in an East Baltimore slum, she had run errands for a whorehouse madam just to be allowed to sit in the front parlor and listen to Louis and Bessie on the Victrola. "Unless it was the records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong I heard as a kid," she recalled later, "I don't know anybody who actually influenced my singing, then or now. I always wanted Bessie's big sound and Pops' feeling." Lady Day was probably entitled to say, as she did, that "before anybody could compare me with other singers, they were comparing other singers with me."

Bessie's big sound she never had, nor do her records suggest that she tried for it. She may have belted a bit in the very early days, working without a mike in Harlem clubs. But hers was not a voice that would have responded generously or amiably to the kind of treatment that Bessie's voice rewarded with that big sound. On records and on mike in clubs, Billie's breath was wonderfully light on the vocal cords, which is why a voice neither rich in texture nor ample in size could be so eloquently tender. This lightness of the breath on the cords also contributed to immaculate enunciation, as it has with subsequent singers, notably Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra.

Louis' feeling she had, and then some, although one wonders what precisely she meant by "Pops' feeling." It can hardly have been feeling in an emotional sense, for Louis' involvement with any song was always more a matter of exuberant and affectionate virtuosity than of personal commitment. She may have meant his feeling for words and phrases, and his way of shaping, or reshaping, a song to suit his own musicality. In this she equaled and may even have surpassed the master.

Louis can be heard in just about every phrase Billie ever sang. His example is conspicuous in her way of wrapping a sound around a word or syllable, enveloping it, so to speak, in an appoggiatura, a slur, a mordent or a turn, in her habit of widening the vibrato during the life of a sustained tone. But what was musical fun and games to Louis Armstrong, who lived the better part of his seventy years at peace with the world, was life in the raw to Billie Holiday. What you had when she finished with a song was not just invention tempered by superb craftsmanship, although there was plenty of each, but untempered autobiography.

Lady Sings the Blues, when it appeared in 1956, three years before her death, was welcomed as a recital of the facts of her life — or at least some of the facts — but regretted for its failure to reveal much of the woman behind the facts. It did, indeed, fail in this respect. But the failure was inconsequential. Anyone who has heard Billie Holiday sing, in person or on record, "Strange Fruit," "God Bless the Child," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Don't Explain" or "Prelude to a Kiss" does not need to look for her in a ghostwritten autobiography. "She, of all singers in jazz," wrote Max Jones, "laid herself most bare when she sang; and it was primarily this raw, human quality, communicated through her voice and her technique, which troubled the hearts and minds of her listeners."

What little voice Billie ever had deteriorated toward the end of her life. In her progress along the dividing line between speech and sustained melody she wandered more often, and ever farther, in the direction of speech. She also tended to wander farther and farther from pitch. She favored ever slower tempi. She was always a languorous singer except in out-and-out up-tempo songs, in which she could achieve and sustain astonishing speeds. Listening to the records she made in the mid-1950s, I am always reminded of George Bernard Shaw's description of Lady Halle, in London, setting a tempo for the first movement of the Beethoven Septet "at about two-thirds of the lowest speed needed to sustain life." Lady Halle's tempo may have been prompted by either conviction or discretion. Billie's tempi, on some occasions, at least, were probably dictated by vocal insecurity. But generally they would seem to have been determined by her lifelong love affair with words.

She herself preferred her later records to the earlier ones, and not without reason. She had learned a lot, both about life and about her own singing. She was more resourceful. Her ornamentation was richer and more varied. The voice, formerly weak at the bottom, now had lovely dark tones down to the low G and F and even below.

"Anybody who knows anything about singing," she wrote at that time, "says I'm for sure singing better than I ever have in my life. If you don't think so, just listen to some of my old sides like 'Lover Come Back' and 'Yesterdays,' and then listen to the same tunes as I have recorded them in recent years. Listen, and trust your own ears."

She was probably right. But speaking for myself, and probably for others, I find that the earlier records have an imperishable charm, especially those she made with Teddy Wilson and a number of upcoming studio sidemen at the very beginning of her recording career. While she had not then the artistic accomplishment of a later time, the raw material was there, and the genius too, a spontaneous, original, fearless and irresistible way with voice and song.

There was something special about the backings, too, both in those early recordings and in those of a few years later, after she had established her association with the Count Basie band in 1937. Her work with the Basie men remained the happiest memory of her recording career, and her recollection of it offers a delightful and fascinating insight into how records were made in those days:

“Most of my experience with bands before then had been in hanging out with Benny Goodman. I used to listen to him rehearse with high-paid radio studio bands and his own groups. He always had big arrangements. He would spend a fortune on arrangements for a little dog-assed vocalist. But with Basie we had something no expensive arrangements could touch. The cats would come in, somebody would hum a tune. Then someone else would play it over on the piano once or twice. Then someone would set up a riff, a ba-deep, a ba-dop. Then Daddy Basie would two finger it a little. And then things would start to happen.

Half the cats couldn't have read music if they'd had it. They didn't want to be bothered anyway. Maybe sometimes one cat would bring in a written arrangement, and the others would run over it. But by the time Jack Wadlin, Skeet Henderson, Buck Clayton, Freddie Green and Basie were through running over it, taking off, changing it, the arrangement wouldn't be recognizable anyway.

I know that's the way we worked out "Love of My Life" and "Them There Eyes" for me. Everything that happened, happened by ear. For the two years I was with the band we had a book of a hundred songs, and everyone of us carried every last damn note of them in our heads.”

Billie herself could not read music. Her art might have survived literacy. But it would have gained nothing from it. What she heard in her mind's ear and translated into vocal utterance had nothing to do with the notes on a printed page. Nor has it come down to us in any printed form. Even her records account for only a part of her musical estate. Hear it from one whose art has been an embodiment of her legacy:

“With few exceptions [wrote Frank Sinatra in an article for Ebony] every major pop singer in the United States during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday, whom I first heard in 52nd Street clubs in the early 50s, who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.”

He had not changed his mind fifteen years later. An album released just after the announcement of his retirement in the spring of 1971, and recorded in October of 1970, includes a song called "Lady Day" — a tribute to Billie Holiday.

She would have been pleased.”

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