It is the centennial of the birth of the woman whose name is eponymous with the words "jazz singer" — Billie Holiday. Her legacy is so ingrained that although she was neither the first nor last to wear a flower in her hair, the sight of a songstress with a flower in her hair will invariably evoke Billie.
The Great Triumvirate of vocal jazz — Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan — were the most creatively fertile women in their field. The fruits of their creative genius have set the vocal standard so high, that no other jazz singer since has come close to dethroning the memory of their musicianship. Of the Great Triumvirate of Jazz singers, Billie is the oldest, and her career started several years before Ella (the second oldest of the trio).
Unlike the others, the sensationalism around Billie's personal life is legion. Long before gossip blogs existed, and long before the word "paparazzi" was coined, the public's interest in the lurid details of her life dominated and has in many ways diminished her legacy. Few biographical sketches avoid delving into her "penchant" for abusive men and her "self destructive" drug use (I recently read a terrible piece on Holiday that attributed her music interpretation of "Lover Man" to a longing for heroin).
I do not see same attention given Miles Davis' or Charlie Parker's abusive relationships and their drug use. Their "women" are not given a megaphone to comment on them, and I never have seen their musical genius attributed to drug use. The double standard is beyond sexist. I sometimes see the hardships of being a Black man highlighted, but I do not see the same courtesy given to Miss Holiday.
So I would like to write a few paragraphs, putting her life within a larger historical context.
Billie Holiday was born on April 17, 1915, in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore. Baltimore was not a residentially segregated town in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, but by the 1900s thousands of African Americans migrated into cites looking for work and safety. Baltimore had become segregated by the turn of the century, and the construction of the B&O Railroad displaced African Americans into already-filled slums so that overcrowding and lack of sanitation caused an outbreak of typhoid and tuberculosis of epic proportions (one Black neighborhood was grimly nicked named "Lung Block"). Urbanization, industrialization, and economic depression in Baltimore concentrated in a growing population of the poor, the sick, and the uneducated. By the 1910s, the decade of Billie's birth, several residential ordinances passed by so-called "progressives" bolstered by Social Darwinist ideology made residential segregation both de facto and du jure. Baltimore became the poster child of a highly segregated city. This was the world Billie was born into in 1915.
Billie's neighborhood was called "Pigtown." Here is how it was described:
"Open drains, great lots filled with high weeds, ashes and garbage accumulated in the alleyways, cellars filled with filthy black water, houses that are total strangers to the touch of whitewash or scrubbing brush, human bodies that have been strangers for months to soap and water, villainous looking negroes who loiter and sleep around the street corners and never work; vile and vicious women, with but a smock to cover their black nakedness, lounging in the doorways or squatting upon the steps, hurling foul epithets at every passerby; foul streets, foul people, in foul tenements filled with foul air; that's 'Pigtown'."
Billie was the offspring of a one-night dalliance between 16-year-old Clarence Halliday and 18-year-old mother Sarah (Sadie) Harris (nee Fagan). They were never married and did not appear to have much of a relationship beyond the encounter that created baby Eleanora. Jobs for Black women were limited and Sadie had difficulty finding work as a live-in maid because White families usually did not let the Black children of their live-in maids live with them. Consequentially, Billie intermittently did not live with her mother.
On the occasions when she did live with her mother, they, like many poor or African Americans residents of the time, lived in boarding houses. In 1925, Billie was living with her mother in a Baltimore boardinghouse when a much older boarder at the residence raped her. Billie was 11 years old. The man was arrested, and Billie was placed in protective custody at a reform school called the "House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls." This reform school is often described as a prison, and "fallen women" were frequently placed there. There are several accounts of abuse and girls running away. Her mother had to hire a lawyer in order to get Billie released. And so Billie's first brush with the law as a pubescent child results in her being locked up even though she was the one victimized and raped.
When Billie turned 13, Sadie began working at a "proper" whorehouse in New York and sent for her daughter to come stay with her and work as a prostitute. Within months, Billie was arrested, and because she gave a false age to the police she was tried and convicted as an adult. After doing four months' time on Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), she was released in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression. Billie decided to stop turning tricks and instead place her bets on getting a job as an entertainer.
(Remember: Holiday, as a very young teenager, had been transported across state lines to work as a child sex slave by her mother! We often forget how young 12 or 13 is when we speak of African Americans. Even today the law increasingly treats Black and Brown children like adults. I encourage people to watch "Pretty Baby" with 12-year-old Brooke Shields so they can get the full visceral impact of youth forced into prostitution and afford the same emotions for Holiday.)
Billie said that she had always sung: "I always knew I could sing, I just didn't know I could make money at it." So instead of singing in New York, she auditioned as a dancer at Pod's and Jerry's club, but danced poorly. At the suggestion of the pianist at the audition, she sang a song and was immediately hired. She changed her last name to Holiday in order to capitalize on her father, who was a guitarist in one of the most respected Black big bands, Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra.
What was even more amazing about this decision to embrace singing was Billie's fortitude in turning rotten lemons into lemonade. She grabbed control of her life at the tender of age of 14 so that she coul become a professional singer.
It is important to not have any illusions about what the jazz life was back then. There was a prohibition on alcohol in the United States in 1929 and it did not end until 1933. Her gigs were speakeasies run by gangsters who specialized in the transport and sale of illegal bootleg substances. These clubs were no Jazz at Lincoln Center or SF Jazz Center or any other type of reputable music venue. She grew up in a rough world full of hustlers and gangsters. It was no small wonder, then, that she attached herself to "tough" men. These were the type of men who could protect her in these environments. There was no other option. Women and bands were property that could be passed from one owner to another. There was no choice involved. It was simple necessity. Legally married women of any race during this time could not own property, nor even enter into contract.
During Billie's time at the Café Society, a hip Village bar filled with intellectuals, bohemians and artists, there was further evidence of her fortitude, resilience and courage. In 1939 she was introduced to, and began performing, the song "Strange Fruit," an anti-lynching protest song written by Jewish writer Abel Meeropol. This song catapulted Billie into a new type of stardom. She was no longer just the singer of sentimental love songs; she became a race woman: an outspoken proponent of civil rights over a decade before the Civil Rights Era had officially begun.
What is less thought about is the song's Communist background. Meeropol was a Communist who, like most communists at the time, believed in racial equality. He is also famous for adopting the Rosenberg children, whose parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed for passing nuclear information to the Soviets even though the United States and the USSR were WWII allies at the time. "Strange Fruit" began as a poem printed in a teacher's union paper under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. The song was also printed as a poem in New Masses, a Marxist magazine. How much persecution did Meeropol face as a White Jewish man that compelled him to publish it under pseudonym?
In contrast, Holiday was Black woman who sang it in person and attached her livelihood to it. It is important to not overlook the fact that Communism was active in promoting civil rights and racial equality. The connection between the Communism and racial equality was so strong that during the McCarthy Era people working for racial equality were summarily labeled communist or at the very least "pinkos." There are several accounts of artistic careers ruined during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Those years coincided with the last decade of Billie Holiday's life and career. The perils she faced for singing that song were very real.
All in all, her career spanned 30 years. She recorded from her teens until her death in 1959. There are very few artists, especially vocalists, who can claim a recording career with such length. Shirley Horn, Etta Jones, Jimmie Scott, Alberta Hunter and many others fell out of the spotlight for decades before making much-heralded "comebacks." While much ado is made over the changes in Billie's voice over the decades, any classical vocal student can tell you that a voice, like an athlete, peaks at a certain age and declines despite one's best efforts to preserve it. Ruth Brown's voice in her older years is unrecognizable from her youth but like a master artist, Brown developed a different technique and approach to her different sound.
Unlike Ruth Brown, Billie's vocal change was often accompanied by accusations of self-destruction, but I myself admire the genius of her later years. It is a study in minimalism and breath control. Her attack is pointed and fierce. Her lyricism is resplendent. The improvisation is so great that the melody is at times unrecognizable from the published sheet music, yet so direct and simple that her improvisation is more melodic than the original melody.
(Her penultimate album, "Lady in Satin," was "borrowed" from my own musical collection and never returned so often that I purchased it eight times before the digital world rendered such extended loans impossible. It was never Billie's early material that was taken; always the older material. Billie once said she felt like she was playing a horn, yet we often fail to accord her music with the same seriousness as horn players. Her musical offerings are on par with John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and should be recognized as such; calling Billie Holiday a "blues singer" is like calling Parker a "blues player," in my personal opinion.)
The next time you read an article on Billie Holiday's life, remember that she was a genius who battled virulent segregation, racism, sexism, rape, molestation and sexual abuse. She was trafficked into child sexual slavery in the 20th century and possibly was even sterilized against her will due to the eugenic politics in place during her time. She was a survivor who was unafraid to speak out on racism and socio-political inequality. Somehow Holiday took the crap she given and grew violets for her furs. She truly is one of the most important artists of the 20th century.
My grandmother hated taking photos. We searched her picture album for images for her funeral and discovered photo after photo where she had either cut out her image or marked her face out with a sharpie. We would find family photos from Christmas gatherings or wedding with her half shadowed in the corner slinking away from the cameras gaze or other times not visible in the photo, although we all remembered her being there. Even the few photos I have of her with my daughter are fuzzy candid photos that I managed to get by pretending to read on my iPad and her being tech-illiterate enough to not know there was a camera in one of those book-looking things!
I am her eldest grandchild, born of her eldest child, and I gave her the moniker "Gammy," which stuck with all her subsequent grandchildren and great grandchildren. In the past decade or so, she came out to visit me in San Francisco several times. When she came out to hear me perform, she wouldn't leave the club until the last note was played and the instruments were all packed to go. Her clap was resonant, with syncopated triplet on the four. She expressed her approval of the band, loudly egging us on with "all right now!" She boldly expressed her musical disapproval with exasperated eye rolls and teeth sucks.
She kept a brisk social calendar while she was in San Francisco, making several friends often going out without me. She particularly loved vocalist Denise Perrier, both to listen to and to hang with. She also enjoyed catching a Lavay Smith concert and was particularly saddened by the death of trumpeter Allen Smith, who played with both my band and Lavay's.
During her most recent visit to San Francisco, she came to one of my shows with her son and daughter, my uncle and aunt, and sat in the corner in the front. As usual she refused to take photos despite it being a rare occasion to have the four of us together. We tried to convince her to take a photo before I got on stage but she refused. When anyone with cameras came too close to where they were all sitting, she found an excuse to go to the bathroom.
She had asked me to sing some blues and to scat that evening. Specifically she wanted "Route 66" or some Ray Charles but I didn't get to it. And when I started doing "Wwhen the Saints," she became disgusted and muttered "why is she doing THAT song?" I started in half time and after a few choruses kicked into double time. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her inching closer and closer to the stage and finally she got so close I just handed her over the mic. She let loose, the crowd went wild and cameras started flashing non-stop but she didn't seem to mind one bit, much to the amusement of my aunt and uncle.
One of the photographers that night was acclaimed artist and champion dancer Jeremy Sutton. He was inspired by his photos from that night to paint a picture called "Generations." Jeremy was generous enough to give me a copy to display for the funeral, overnighting a print across country that arrived just in the nick of time. We displayed it in front on an easel. She just happened to be wearing the same outfit, a silk Chinese suit with a mandarin collar, and when the coffin closed it was such a comfort to have the painting in front of me to look at.
Thank you to everyone who is helping me and my family get through these difficult past few weeks but especially thank you Jeremy Sutton for your priceless gift of art.