Tragic Billie Holiday can still be a role model


April 08, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Jazz singer Billie Holiday abused drugs and alcohol. Sh entered into self-destructive relationships with men. She died lonely and unhappy at 44.

Can such a woman be a role model for today's youth?

"Absolutely," says Ruby Glover, who knew Holiday. "Absolutely -- and not just for the young. She is a role model for adults, for blacks and whites, for everybody."

Ms. Glover, 63, is one of the city's most respected and beloved jazz vocalists, and gives many talks at schools and colleges. She and I served together on a committee set up to coordinate activities around a play at Center Stage that dramatizes Billie Holiday's life. Yesterday would have been her 78th birthday.

After a childhood in Baltimore, Holiday earned international acclaim but never escaped her personal demons.

"She is a role model," insists Ms. Glover, "because of her ability to relate to her needs -- not answer her needs, but relate to them. She stayed as strong as she could for as long as she could, considering who she was, where she came from, and where she was placed."

Billie Holiday, says Ms. Glover, was born into a single-parent household and searched for love all her life. Moreover, she was a woman trying to succeed in the field of jazz -- a man's world. And, being black, she faced the stifling reality of segregation and bigotry.

"Billie Holiday felt a terrible hunger to be loved, to be accepted, to be needed," says Ms. Glover. "That struggle is universal, and it is the epitome of what youth today face. Plus, Billie had the gift of putting that struggle into her music. She was a powerful lyricist. Everything in her music speaks of someone who was wretched with pain."

The play, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," speaks to that theme: Holiday's lifelong struggle to translate her personal sorrow into song. It is riveting, profoundly moving, deeply affecting theater. And it is exactly the type of thing young people today need to see.

Think about this: Even though the me-first, high-flying 1980s are supposed to be behind us, our society remains engaged in an orgy of celebration of wealth and power and prestige. These are confusing messages for youths of privilege.

But for disadvantaged children, every waking moment of every day must be a constant, bitter reminder of what they do not have. It is as if our society has deliberately set out to taunt them through movies and television, magazines and radio, to rub their noses in their deprivation.

It isn't just the mass media, either. As students, we were taught that success is more spiritual than physical -- measured more by how much we fight injustice and better the lives of others than by how much loot we can obtain. But when I participate in career-day activities in public schools, many of my fellow speakers seem to concentrate on the material things they have earned, even their salaries.

It is small wonder, now, that so many young people seem consumed by rage and are striking out with blind violence.

Perhaps, we ought to begin telling young people how to deal with disappointment and loss; how to get hit once, twice, and yet again, and keep on striving. Perhaps they need to be reassured that all of us at times feel uncertain and afraid and that the very fact that we are alive and dare to dream means that we will face disappointments.

And most important, perhaps we ought to help our young discover a different measure of success.

"I talk about Billie Holiday to young people all of the time," says Ms. Glover. "Because despite her pain and despite what appear to be her personal failures, Billie stands out as one of our most defiant ones, one of our pillars of strength. When she saw what was happening to her, she was one of the ones who told other musicians and performers, 'Do as I say, not as I do.'

"And out of her own struggles, she became one of our greatest jazz performers -- both as a lyricist and as a jazz instrumentalist -- because she was one of the first to use her voice as an instrument," Ms. Glover continues. "Her example is something we all can learn from."

The play runs through May 16. During the same period, the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center here is showing an exhibition of art inspired by Billie Holiday.

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