In Baltimore's spotlight, the spirit of Billie Holiday Beyond the saga, the jazz singer

March 28, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Everybody knows that Billie Holiday was a great jazz singer, perhaps the greatest ever. It hardly matters whether you've heard any of her recordings; Holiday's greatness is a cultural truism, as indisputable as the might of a Beethoven symphony or the beauty of the Mona Lisa.

Why, though? How did she achieve such stature in our culture? What was it about her singing that makes her special, keeps her revered?

These aren't just idle questions, either. Although most of us would agree that exposure to "great music" is a good thing, our culture's tendency to canonize great musicians often leads us to overlook why we pay such homage. As a result, almost anyone can hum the da-da-da-duhmm of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but few outside the conservatory can explain the genius of what Beethoven does with that theme.

Appreciation programs can be blamed for a lot of this, inasmuch as they lead people to think of music history as a string of factoids -- names to know, movements to mark, works to revere, and the like. But it should also be noted that it's often safer for a society to revere art than to experience it. Reverence leaves room for an idealizing distance, filtering the visceral intensity of an artist's work through a comforting buffer of cultural values. This, in turn, reduces the work's impact, blunting its edges and neutering its potency until it has been made safe for mass consumption.

That certainly has been the case with Billie Holiday. By now, even non-fans know her image (especially the gardenia blossoms she wore in her hair), her repertoire ("God Bless the Child," "The Man I Love," "Strange Fruit") and her nickname ("Lady Day," bestowed upon her by saxophonist Lester Young). And it goes without saying that she's widely revered. Why else would Baltimore name its annual jazz-singer competition after her? Why else would so many of today's jazz singers record albums of tribute?

A troubled life

But how well, really, is she known? Though the particulars of her life -- her squalid youth, her troubles with men and drugs, her skirmishes with racism, her tragic death -- are almost the stuff of legend, the sad fact is that most Americans think of Holiday in terms of Diana Ross, the cinematic star of "Lady Sings the Blues."

As a result, Holiday exists for many of us on an almost symbolic level, as a paradigm of artistic suffering -- a great soul crushed by the circumstances of race, class and gender.

Holiday herself understood the import of her story, playing up the pathos of her life from the very first lines of her autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues." There, in the first 23 words, she sketches a world of tragedy: "Ma and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three."

No wonder that this is the side of Holiday that mesmerizes. As the critic Henry Pleasants wrote, "[I]t was her losing struggle with adversity, bad luck, and personal weakness and pTC 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." Not to mention our own.

Holiday said she was born in Baltimore, although recent research shows she actually entered this world in Philadelphia, probably on April 7, 1915 (the actual date remains unverified). Her father, Clarence, was a professional guitarist and a good one, but if he handed down any musical aptitude it was strictly on the genetic level, as he was absent for much of her youth.

When she was 10, she was raped by a neighbor. He was caught and punished, but so was she, ending up in a home for wayward girls. She moved with her mother to Brooklyn, and the teen-age Holiday wound up working in a brothel (although at first only as a housemaid).

A career is launched

It's not clear how she wound up with a singing career. Holiday's own version was that she had botched an audition for a job dancing, and the house pianist, in a moment of pity, asked her if she could sing. She did, and was hired on the spot. By her telling, this was 1933, though others remember her performing in and around Harlem as many as three years earlier; in any case, she was discovered by producer John Hammond, who took her to make her first recording in the fall of 1933. The rest, as they say, is history.

Or should have been, anyway. Fate and fortune smiled neither long nor often on Lady Day, and her professional career at times seemed just a long series of bad breaks. By 1939, Holiday finally got her own, earning critical acclaim and a star's paycheck, but she shared that success with a heroin habit, and, as always, the drug eventually won out. Her voice deteriorated, she had problems with the law (including a year in prison on a 1947 narcotics conviction), her recordings became erratic. Her death, in a hospital bed in 1959, was almost laughably cruel; she left this world with drug charges pending, and $750 taped to her leg.

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