Our greatest jazz voice

Monday Book Reviews

November 11, 1991|By Earl Arnett

LADY DAY: THE MANY FACES OF BILLIE HOLIDAY. By Robert O'Meally. Arcade Publishing Inc. 207 pages. $29.95. An accompanying VHS videotape sells for $29.95. SHE CALLED herself Billie Holiday. Others called her "Lady Day." Jazz critic Martin Williams, who played a role in the inception of this project, labeled her a great musician and "a great natural actress who had learned to draw on her own feelings and convey them with honest directness to a listener."

After 207 pages (and more than 178 photographs and illustrations, a bibliography and notes) of this "biographical essay" by Barnard College Professor Robert O'Meally, the author describes Holiday as a "minimalist on fire" whose life "was an audacious self-invention."

To aid in the search for the elusive Lady Day, the reader can become a viewer. There's a 60-minute VHS videotape on which one can glimpse and hear Holiday in a montage of still photos, television and film clips assembled before her death at the age of 44 in 1959. Taped interview segments, generic scenes from the swing era and photos of newspaper clippings supplement the portrait, which includes a famous excerpt of Holiday singing "Fine and Mellow" with an all-star group of players in a 1957 television show.

Musicians Buck Clayton, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Mal Waldron, Annie Ross and Carmen McRae reminisce about her special qualities, while producer Milt Gabler recalls the ups and downs of her career. Writer Albert Murray contributes remarks about her African-American aesthetic qualities, developed under the stresses of segregation and social stereotyping.

The videotape also features the voice of actress Ruby Dee, who occasionally reads excerpts from Holiday's autobiography. O'Meally wrote the script.

What emerges both from the book and tape is a dense, complicated and always interesting musical collage from the life of an extraordinary artist still difficult to "explain." Like many artists, particularly those who have had to reconstitute themselves from various "holocausts," Billie Holiday wore many masks.

"Why should the world be overwise/In counting all our tears and sighs?" asked poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. "Nay, let them only see us, while/We wear the mask."

As a performer who had experienced the whorehouses and gin mills of Baltimore, the honky-tonks of New York and the musical hardships of "The Road," Billie Holiday learned from an early age when and how to employ her masks. But this ability slipped as she grew older and succumbed to the ever-present temptations of alcohol and other drugs. Several arrests, failed marriages, a brief prison term and other difficulties made it easy for popular media to portray her as a victim.

If the process could earn money, she apparently even contributed to the mythology. Thus her collaboration with William Duffy, the 1956 autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues," contains both errors of fact and omissions. It begins: "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was 3." According to O'Meally, neither sentence is true.

Backed by the research of the late Linda Kuehl, O'Meally writes that Billie's mother, Sara Harris (later Fagan) was 18 when she became pregnant by 17-year-old Clarence Holiday, a talented banjo and guitar player who had no thought of getting married.

"Eleanora Fagan, later known to the world as Billie Holiday, was born on April 7, 1915," he writes. "With her due date coming near, Holiday's mother decided to escape her father's censoring eyes and took a job as a live-in domestic in Philadelphia, trading her services for the assurance that her baby would be born in a hospital, baptized and properly cared for. This arrangement worked according to plan . . . Contrary to the twice-told tale, Eleanora Fagan was not born in Baltimore but in Philadelphia. Brought back to Baltimore while still an infant, she grew up in that city."

O'Meally backs up the above statement with documentary evidence from a 1925 baptismal certificate from the House of Good Shepherd, where Eleanora had been sent for juvenile delinquency, as well as a 1958 passport which lists her birthplace as Philadelphia.

If this claim slightly diminishes civic pride in a native daughter, O'Meally compensates for the slight by justly pointing to Baltimore's rich African-American musical legacy from the early 20th century. The cultural and musical history of a city which produced Eubie Blake, Joe Turner, Cab and Blanche Calloway, Avon Long, Llewellyn Wilson and many others has yet to be written and appreciated.

Beneath all the masks and mirrors of her life, the essential Billie Holiday fought great odds and forged a vocal art which can still make people cry. This lavishly illustrated book, enhanced by the videotape, tells her story well and compensates for previous media distortions. She who emerges lingers in the mind and ear not as a victim but as "the greatest jazz voice of the century."

Earl Arnett is acting director of music criticism at the Peabody Conservatory and husband of Baltimore jazz singer Ethel Ennis.

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