A Song for Lady Day

Half a century after her death, Billie Holiday's music remains a cornerstone of the American songbook.

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That sounds like a person who had discovered what she had and  bet her life on it. In the face of virtuoso moves, Holiday was so  far ahead on human feeling as to be invincible. She had learned her craft from Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, desiring Armstrong’s sense of time and his brilliant choice of notes as well as Smith’s big sound. She did better with Armstrong than she did with Smith, whom Langston Hughes said one could hear out on the street when she was singing in a theater before microphones had been developed to the point that Armstrong, Holiday and Sinatra could make the most of them.


Neither Armstrong nor Holiday nor Sinatra was a belter or would have been much in the world of opera where size, projection and nuance were taken to levels far beyond what one expected in popular music. Each of them brought popular music to heights of varied expression, emotional complexity and even psychological revelation that were far beyond what had been intended by most popular composers or made functionally limited in their strident pluck by Broadway types like Ethel Merman, who was capable of shivering the timbers.


Holiday was so special because she imbued her performances with a tenderness so charismatic that her example and her unbending musical presence forced instrumentalists to do their best at making up melodies or coming as close to crooners as whatever talent they had made possible. One could not be completely satisfied with a brass or reed instrument unless it took on qualities close to a voice elevated by artistry of the sort that only jazz could bring to its material. This was done by combining the highest level of improvisation, with the skill to fit a context and the absolutely essential ability to express oneself best by meeting the demands of the ensemble, adjusting breath by breath to where one is and what is going on as well as recognizing what to do with reality in motion.



She first appeared on record in the middle 1930s and had become a big influence on fellow singers by the end of the decade. The inarguably great Ella Fitzgerald has never failed to call Holiday the greatest jazz singer of all time. Abbey Lincoln, the only singer since Holiday who has a parallel level of feeling, of vulnerability and pathos so far from self-pity, says the same thing. Miles Davis, whose sense of rhythm and whose tendency to float over the beat was as deeply influenced by her as the growing confidence he brought to lyrical recognition of the interwoven mystery of melancholy, frailty and unbounded but unsentimental joy.


That unsentimental joy has often been misunderstood as some sort of Negro foolishness too far removed from the world of the substantial to be taken seriously. But mindless and empty-headed frivolousness is not the issue at all. Thorough acknowledgment of life’s tragic facts is what makes the art of Armstrong, of Holiday and of many other major jazz musicians so compelling. It is much like singing a fervently happy song in the morgue not because we don’t know what awaits us, but because joy is a protest against all that would take us down. So the will to live becomes more than desperation and ascends to a combatively affirmative morale. No minor accomplishment, this may be the most impressive thing that American Negroes have offered the world at large. There can be no doubt that Billie Holiday knew how to bring it.