A Song for Lady Day

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


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.


For those interested in an eloquent and perfectly clear assessment, the very best writing about Holiday’s artistry is contained in The Jazz Tradition by Martin Williams. Then there are some recordings that make it understandable what inspired all of the talk. The Essential Billie Holiday, a 1956 performance at Carnegie Hall, documents her craft at a penthouse point of perfection in which ballads, blues and extremely hard but floating swing are as good as anything she ever recorded. Songs for Distingué Lovers from 1957, just two years before her death, finds the incomparable Lady Day at the height of her talent and possessed of a mature wisdom that one does not hear in her early work, no matter how good it might be.


Then there is her personal favorite, Lady In Satin, done with strings about 17 months before she died.


There are those who enjoy pitying Billie Holiday for the hard life that she led due to drugs, alcohol and the rough men who were incapable of breaking her spirit.


But we should not be decoyed by those unpleasant truths to the extent that we miss what the great Betty Carter observed about the great Billie Holiday. “I think she was only free when she was singing. Everything else didn’t mean much except that it led up to the moment when she stepped out on that stage and became what we all wanted but only she could give us. She was free then, and everybody knew it. When someone brings that much freedom and makes you believe it, you have to get happy. You can’t help it.”


Stanley Crouch is a New York writer.