De son vivant, l’oeuvre de Billie Holiday interessait moins que la mythologie sulfureuse de son existence perturbée.
Le cliché du génie autodestructeur alimentait la presse et ses interviews, on s’interessait davantage à son enfance misérable, son passé de prostituée, sa toxicomanie, ses séjours en prison et aux dernières accusations portées contre elle, sur son lit de mort, par le service des narcotiques.
Ce n’est qu’en 1986, vingt-sept ans aprés sa mort, qu’elle reçut une reconnaissance « officielle » et fut gratifiée d’une étoile à son nom dans l’Allée de la Gloire à Hollywood.
Elle devint ainsi la seule vocaliste de Jazz considérée comme une grande musicienne selon les critéres appliqués par exemple à Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis ou Sonny Rollins.
Loin d’être fiable, l’autobiographie » Lady Sings the Blues » écrite par William Dufty avec la collaboration de Billie ne permet pas de retracer clairement son enfance.
Quelques faits peuvent néammoins être retenus: aprés la naissance de Billie, Clarence Holiday son pére, musicien chez Fletcher Henderson, quitta la famille et peu de temps aprés, c’est la mére de Billie qui s’en va à New York en la confiant à des parents éloignés qui ne l’aimaient guére et dont elle n’a gardé que de lugubres souvenirs, en particulier de mauvais traitements.
Devenue adolescente, Billie rejoint sa mére à New York ou elle se laisse vite entraîner dans la prostitution et subit sa premiére incarcération.
A sa sortie de prison, elle est engagée au pourboire dans les clubs de Harlem, ou elle présente un exercice de danse consciencieusement répété qui n’interesse pas grand monde, et c’est presque par hasard qu’un pianiste lui demande un soir si elle sait chanter : Billie chanta Trav’lin All Alone et Body and Soul et émut l’assistance à tel point que, du jour au lendemain, sa réputation fut faite; elle avait quinze ans.
Découverte en 1933 par John Hammond, elle signe un contrat avec Joe Glaser, l’agent de Louis Armstrong, et elle réalise en 1936 une série d’enregistrements avec Teddy Wilson destinés au marché naissant du juke-box.
Ces disques qui sont devenus des classiques de la musique populaire, sont un exemple inégalé de l’art de personnaliser une interprétation.
Les conversations improvisées avec le ténor de Lester Young sont de superbes échantillons de jazz de petite formation.
Billie Holiday s’efforçait de façonner son style comme le faisaient les instrumentistes qui l’inspiraient : Louis Armstrong et Lester Young dont le jeu original avait l’art de surprendre l’auditoire en plaçant l’accent ailleurs que là ou on l’attendait et en appuyant les ouvertures ou les fins de phrase de la même manière.
Toujours trés attentive aux paroles, elle n’hésitait pas à modifier les textes pour les adapter à sa personnalité avec ironie et réalisme, y mêlant l’originalité de son vécu.
En 1937, Billie rejoint l’orchestre de Count Basie ou elle doit se contenter de quelques interventions chantées à la maniére de jimmy Rushing.
Ce rôle ne lui convenant pas et Count Basie ne supportant pas son manque de ponctualité, l’association tourna court et rien d’officiel ne fut enregistré.
En 1938, elle accompagne en tournée le prestigieux orchestre de danse dirigé par Artie Shaw, avec lequel elle aura une bréve liaison.
Cette tournée les conduisant dans le sud du pays, Billie devait manger seule dans le bus alors que Shaw et ses musiciens, blancs, se rendaient au restaurant.
Bien qu’elle lui fut peu profitable, cette collaboration est néammoins un exemple de l’évolution des rapports inter-raciaux dans le milieu musical de l’époque malgré le racisme ambiant.
En 1939, elle enregistre le poème anti-raciste de Lewis Allen « Strange Fruit » qui dénonce les lynchages sudistes et devient grâce à elle un « tube » universel.
Dans les années quarante, Billie Holiday était une star et séduisait autant les publics jazz et non jazz.
Elle n’a jamais eu de succés assez commerciaux pour la rendre riche mais elle avait conquis un public libéral, sensible à ses émotions vécues, la sensibilité et la souffrance habitant chacune de ses intonations.
Toujours en quête d’une figure paternelle, Billie collectionne les déceptions sentimentales et se succèdent à ses côtés des hommes profitant de ses revenus en constante progression alors qu’elle sombre dans la drogue.
Ses efforts pathétiques pour se réhabiliter étaient connus de tous et elle prit l’habitude de porter de longs gants pour dissimuler ses avant-bras abîmés.
La musique qu’elle enregistre à cette époque devient plus commerciale mais reste sublime dans son interprétation : Don’t Explain, God Bless the Child…
Dans le milieu des années cinquante, Billie parvint à se défaire des drogues dures et avec l’aide de Norman Granz, elle reprend les tournées, enregistre et publie son autobiographie » Lady Sings the Blues ».
Le répit fut de courte durée, Billie sombrant maintenant de plus en plus souvent dans une dépression intense est contrainte à raréfier ses prestations.
En mai 1959, quelques mois aprés la mort de Lester Young, Billie fait sa derniére apparition publique au Phoenix Theater de New York avant d’être hospitalisée le 31 du même mois.
Elle décèdera dix semaines plus tard.
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Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), born Eleanora Fagan and later nicknamed Lady Day (see « Jazz royalty » regarding similar nicknames), was an American jazz singer, a seminal influence on jazz and pop singers, and generally regarded as one of the greatest female jazz vocalists.
Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood, which greatly affected her life and career. Much of her childhood is clouded by conjecture and legend, some of it propagated by her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, published in 1956. This account is known to contain many inaccuracies.
Her professional pseudonym was taken from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name « Halliday, » presumably to distance herself from her neglectful father, but eventually changed it back to « Holiday. »
Holiday’s grandfather was one of 17 children of a black Virginia slave and a white Irish plantation owner. There are conflicting reports about whether her thirteen-year-old mother, Sadie Fagan, and fifteen-year-old father, Clarence Holiday, ever married, but if they did, they did not live together for any significant period. Clarence Holiday played guitar and banjo professionally and joined jazz-band leader Fletcher Henderson in the early 1930s, so he was on the road much of the time and was apparently not a family man.
There is some controversy regarding Holiday’s paternity, stemming from a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives that lists the father as a « Frank DeViese ». Some historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker . On the infrequent occasions that she did see him, Billie would extort money from her father by threatening to tell his then-girlfriend that he had a daughter.
Billie grew up in the poor section of Baltimore, Maryland. According to her autobiography, her house was the first on their street to have electricity. Her parents married when she was three, but they soon divorced, leaving her to be raised largely by her mother and other relatives. At the age of 11, she reported that she had been raped.
That claim, combined with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, in 1925. It was only through the assistance of a family friend that she was released two years later. Scarred by these experiences, Holiday moved to New York City with her mother in 1928. In 1929 Holiday’s mother discovered a neighbor, Wilbert Rich, in the act of raping Billie; Rich was sentenced to three months in jail.
Early singing career
According to Billie Holiday’s accounts, she was recruited by a brothel, worked as a prostitute, and was eventually imprisoned for a short time. It was in Harlem in the early 1930s that she started singing for tips in various night clubs. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang « Trav’lin All Alone » in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. She later worked at various clubs for tips, ultimately landing at Pod’s and Jerry’s, a well known Harlem jazz club. Her early work history is hard to verify, though accounts say she was working at a club named Monette’s in 1933 when she was discovered by talent scout John Hammond.
Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut on a 1933 Benny Goodman date, and Goodman was also on hand in 1935, when she continued her recording career with a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first collaboration included « What A Little Moonlight Can Do » and « Miss Brown To You », which helped to establish Billie Holiday as a major vocalist. She began recording under her own name a year later, producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the Swing Era’s finest musicians.
Among the musicians who accompanied her frequently was tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had been a boarder at her mother’s house in 1934 and with whom she had a special rapport. « Well, I think you can hear that on some of the old records, you know. Some time I’d sit down and listen to ’em myself, and it sound like two of the same voices, if you don’t be careful, you know, or the same mind, or something like that. »Young nicknamed her « Lady Day » and she, in turn, dubbed him « Prez. » In the late 1930s, she also had brief stints as a big band vocalist with Count Basie (1937) and Artie Shaw (1938). The latter association placed her among the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an arrangement that went against the temper of the times. Billie’s Blues, a biography by British jazz historian John Chilton, details this period of her life.
The Commodore Years and « Strange Fruit »
Holiday was recording for Columbia in the late 1930s when she was introduced to « Strange Fruit, » a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym « Lewis Allen » for the poem, which was set to music and performed at teachers’ union meetings. It was eventually heard by Barney Josephson, proprietor of Café Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who introduced it to Holiday. She performed it at the club in 1939, with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation. Holiday later said that the imagery in « Strange Fruit » reminded her of her father’s death, and that this played a role in her persistence to perform it. In a 1958 interview, she also bemoaned the fact that many people did not grasp the song’s message: « They’ll ask me to ‘sing that sexy song about the people swinging’, » she said.
When her producers at Columbia found the subject matter too sensitive, Commodore Records’ Milt Gabler agreed to record it for his label. That was done in April, 1939 and « Strange Fruit » remained in her repertoire for twenty years. She later recorded it again for Verve. While the Commodore release did not get airplay, the controversial song sold well, but Gabler attributes that mostly to the record’s other side, « Fine and Mellow, » which was a juke box hit.
Decca Records and « Lover Man »
In addition to owning Commodore Records, Milt Gabler was an A&R man for Decca Records, and he signed Holiday to the label in 1944. Her first recording for Decca, « Lover Man, » was a song that had been written especially for her by Jimmy Davis, Roger « Ram » Ramirez, and Jimmy Sherman. Although the song’s lyrics describe a woman who has never known love (« I long to try something I never had »), its theme — a woman longing for a missing lover — and its refrain, « Lover man, oh, where can you be? », struck a chord in war-time America and the record became one of Holiday’s biggest hits.
Holiday continued to record for Decca until 1950, including one session in which she and Louis Armstrong sang several duets. Holiday’s Decca recordings offer a sharp contrast to those of her Columbia period. The songs she was able to record at Decca generally were top-quality, and many of her songs were accompanied by orchestras or string sections rather than jazz combos. Some of the songs Holiday recorded for Decca became her signatures (« Don’t Explain, » « Good Morning Heartache »).
Her personal life was as turbulent as the songs she sang. Holiday stated that she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe on August 25, 1941. While still married to Monroe, she took up with trumpeter Joe Guy, her drug dealer, as his common law wife. She finally divorced Monroe in 1947, and also split with Guy. In 1947 she was jailed on drug charges and served eight months at the Alderson Federal Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. Her New York City Cabaret Card was subsequently revoked, which kept her from working in clubs there for the remaining 12 years of her life, except when she played at the Ebony Club in 1948, where she opened under the permission of John Levy.
By the 1950s, Holiday’s drug abuse, drinking, and relations with abusive men led to deteriorating health. Her voice coarsened and did not project the vibrance it once did. However, she seemed to stand as a prime example of the struggling artist, and projected a certain bittersweet dignity.
On March 28, 1952, Holiday married Louis McKay, an opportunistic failed pimp. McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive, but he did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death, but McKay had plans to start a chain of Billie Holiday vocal studios, a la the Arthur Murray dance schools. Holiday also had a relationship with Orson Welles.
Her late recordings on Verve constitute about a third of her commercial recorded legacy and are as well remembered as her earlier work for the Columbia, Commodore and Decca labels. In later years her voice became more fragile, but it never lost the edge that had always made it so distinctive. On November 10, 1956, she performed before a packed audience at Carnegie Hall, a major accomplishment for any artist, especially a black artist of the segregated period of American history. Her performance of « Fine And Mellow » on CBS’s The Sound of Jazz program is memorable for her interplay with her long-time friend Lester Young; both were less than two years from death.
Holiday first toured Europe in 1954, as part of a Leonard Feather package that also included Buddy DeFranco and Red Norvo. When she returned, almost five years later, she made one of her last television appearances for Granada’s « Chelsea at Nine, » in London. Her final studio recordings were made for MGM in 1959, with lush backing from Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, who had also accompanied her on Columbia’s Lady in Satin album the previous year — see below). The MGM sessions were released posthumously on a self-titled album, later re-titled and re-released as Last Recordings. Her final public appearance, a benefit concert at the Phoenix Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village, took place on May 25, 1959. According to the evening’s masters of ceremony, jazz critic Leonard Feather and TV host Steve Allen, she was only able to make it through two songs, one of which was « Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do. »
On May 31, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. On July 12, she was placed under house arrest at the hospital for possession, despite evidence suggesting the drugs may have been planted on her. Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17 1959 at the age of 44. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with only $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person.
Billie Holiday is interred in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery, Bronx, New York.
Her impact on other artists was undeniable, however; even after her death she continues to influence singers. In 1972, Diana Ross portrayed her in a film that was loosely based on Lady Sings the Blues, the autobiography she co-authored with William Dufty. Although the Hollywood treatment strayed far from the true story, it was a commercial success and earned Ms. Ross a Best Actress nomination. In 1987, Billie Holiday was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, in 1994, the United States Postal Service introduced a Billie Holiday postage stamp, she ranked #6 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women in Rock n’ Roll in 1999, and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Over the years, there have been many recorded tributes to Billie Holiday, including « Angel of Harlem, » a 1988 release by the group U2.
Although her unique style has never been successfully duplicated, Billie Holiday inspired many singers and continues to be regarded as one of the jazz idiom’s most important vocalists.
Holiday recorded extensively for four labels:
Columbia Records (1933-1942, 1958)
Commodore Records (1939, 1944)
Decca Records (1944-1950)
Verve Records (1952-1959)
Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)
The Complete Commodore Recordings (1939, 1944)
For collectors not interested in non-released studio takes, The Commodore Master Takes features only the released versions of Holiday’s Commodore recordings.
The Complete Decca Recordings (1944-1950)
The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve (1945-1959)
Other studio recordings:
Lady in Satin (Columbia, 1958)
New Orleans: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1946) (Giants of Jazz, 1983)
The Sound of Jazz (Columbia, 1958)
Many live recordings, of varying quality, are also available. A selection is listed below:
At Monterey 1958 (1958)
Billie Holiday in Europe 1954-1958 (1954-1958)
The Complete 1951 Storyville Club Sessions (1951)
Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at Newport (1957) (Holiday’s performance is included in the Verve box set; see below)
Lady Day: The Storyville Concerts [Vol. 1 and 2] (1951, 1953, 1959)
A Midsummer Night’s Jazz at Stratford ’57 (1957)
Summer of ’49 (1948-1949)
The Columbia box set includes live recordings of Holiday’s performances with the Count Basie Orchestra (1937) and Benny Goodman (1939), and her performance at the 1944 Esquire Jazz Concert.
The Verve box set includes the following live recordings:
Jazz at the Philharmonic performances (1945-1947)
Jazz Club USA (1954)
1956 Carnegie Hall concerts, with a narrator reading portions of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues
1957 Newport Jazz Festival
Seven Ages of Jazz Festival (1958)
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