Billie Holiday: The top 25 icons in Jazz history

Billie Holiday: The top 25 icons in Jazz history

Billie Holiday was peerless when it came to conveying the emotion in a song.

If Ella was the supreme portrayer of lyrics, Billie Holiday was peerless when it came to conveying the emotion in a song. This 1957 TV soundtrack (actually this issue is the dress rehearsal, but the televised version is equally good) puts her in her preferred setting: a jam session with her swing era colleagues. She is both an emotionally charged singer, and an improvising musician taking her turn amid the finest soloists of the age. PS, if you watch the video of the TV show, you’ll see it was practically obligatory for this generation of players to wear a hat in the studio.

Billie Holiday : Fine and mellow (1957)


Billie Holiday singing with Ben Webster — tenor saxophone, Lester Young — tenor saxophone, Vic Dickenson — trombone, Gerry Mulligan — baritone saxophone, Coleman Hawkins — tenor saxophone, Roy Eldridge — trumpet, Doc Cheatham — trumpet, Danny Barker — guitar, Milt Hinton — double bass, Mal Waldron — piano and Osie Johnson – drums

Billie Holiday

Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), known professionally as Billie Holiday, was an American jazz and swing music singer. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.

free sheet music pdf Billie Holiday

After a turbulent childhood, Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, where she was heard by producer John Hammond, who commended her voice. She signed a recording contract with Brunswick in 1935. Collaborations with Teddy Wilson yielded the hit “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, which became a jazz standard. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca. By the late 1940s, however, she was beset with legal troubles and drug abuse. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, but her reputation deteriorated because of her drug and alcohol problems.

She was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950s with two further sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. Because of personal struggles and an altered voice, her final recordings were met with mixed reaction but were mild commercial successes. Her final album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958. Holiday died of cirrhosis on July 17, 1959 at age 44. She won four Grammy Awards, all of them posthumously, for Best Historical Album. She was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. Several films about her life have been released.

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Billie Holiday Short biography

Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan Gough) grew up in jazz-soaked Baltimore of the 1920s. In her early teens, the beginning part of her “apprenticeship” was spent singing along with the records of iconoclasts Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. In 1929 Billie’s mother Sadie Fagan moved to New York in search of better jobs. Young Eleanora soon joined her there and began showing up at jazz clubs to audition and sing with resident pianists. She made debuts in obscure Harlem nightclubs, sharing tips with other dancers and comedians on the bill. Around this time she borrowed her professional name Billie Holiday from screen actress Billie Dove. Although she never received technical training and never learned how to read music, Holiday quickly became an active participant in what was then the most vibrant jazz scene in the country – as the Harlem Renaissance transitioned into the Swing Era.

At age 18, after gathering more life experience than most adults, Holiday was spotted by producer John Hammond with whom she cut her first record as part of a studio group led by clarinetist Benny Goodman – then on the verge of his own superstardom. From 1935 to 1941 Holiday’s career accelerated, recording hit after hit with pianist/arranger Teddy Wilson. Simultaneously, in 1936 she began a legendary string of collaborations with tenor sax giant Lester Young, who’s complimentary tone was a perfect trading partner for Billie.

They became the best of friends and inseparable, legendary musical partners, even living together with Billie’s mother for a time. Lester would famously christen her “Lady Day” as she would him “The Prez”. By the time Holiday joined Kansas City’s phenomenal Count Basie Orchestra for tours in 1937 she was an unstoppable force, suited for top billing across the United States. In 1938 Artie Shaw invited her to front his Orchestra, making Billie the first black women to work with a white band – an impressive and courageous accomplishment.

In the 1930’s, during her epic run at Barney Josephson’s Cafe Society in Manhattan, she was introduced to the poem “Strange Fruit,” a horrific depiction of lynching in the Southern United States. The music was written just for Billie and it became the hallmark of her concerts. It’s considered by scholars to be the first protest song of the civil rights era. The lyric was so controversial that her record label wouldn’t record it. So she jumped over to the independent Commodore Records where she could record and sing as she pleased. “Strange Fruit” immediately became a cultural spark-point and a hit record too.

In 1939, with Arthur Herzog, Jr., she wrote “God Bless The Child”, a composition that transcends the ages and is now part of the great American songbook and jazz lexicon. In 1944 she signed with prestigious Decca Records, cutting still more classics and even a couple duets with her first musical hero Louis Armstrong – with whom she’d later star in the Hollywood film “New Orleans” (1949).

Starting in 1952 Billie began a five year run with Norman Granz’ Clef/Verve label. Granz was the entrepreneur behind the “Jazz At The Philharmonic” series and he was very sensitive to the needs of artists. He put Billie back into small group settings from which her genius had originally grown. Together they made roughly 100 new recordings, constituting Billie’s first forays into the high-fidelity album era. Her voice became more rugged and shockingly intimate. She put this new signature sound on scores of stirring ballads such as her self-reflecting composition “Lady Sings The Blues”. During this period she expanded her repertoire while also re-recording many of her 1930’s classics in her new style. Redefining herself as the “Torch Singer”, she appeared twice on TV’s “Tonight Show with Steve Allen”, on CBS’s historic “The Sound Of Jazz” program and also toured Europe.

In 1958, she signed to Columbia Records, the longtime home base of A&R man John Hammond, who had been instrumental in her early career. For Columbia she created her swan song masterpiece album “Lady In Satin”. Final studio recordings were made for MGM in March 1959 and were released posthumously.

Billie Holiday, died at the age of 44 and is buried at Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in Bronx County, NY. Her music and life continue to inspire tributes. Whether it’s Nina Simone covering “Strange Fruit”; Diana Ross starring as Lady Day in the film “Lady Sings the Blues”; U2 penning their hit “Angel Of Harlem”; her image on a United States postage stamp; Time Magazine’s “Song Of The Century” Award; scores of biographies and a dozen Grammy Awards, her emotive voice, innovative technique and touching songs will forever be a hallmark of genius.

Despite her lack of technical training, Holiday’s uncanny syncopations, her inimitable phrasing and her dramatic intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day. White gardenias, worn in her hair, were her trademark. 

Ever combining her typical humor with profound gravitas, she wrote in her autobiography, “Singing songs like the ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘Porgy’ is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck. I’ve lived songs like that.”

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Billie Holiday singing style

An intimate connection between speech and music in the art of Billie Holiday has been remarked upon by many commentators and colleagues. “She could just say ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning’,” said pianist Teddy Wilson, “and it was a musical experience.” Singer Shirley Horn said that Billie “made music out of speech, or speech out of music, it’s hard to separate the two.” Stacy Jones refers to “Holiday’s speech-song delivery.”
Stuart Nicholson notes that at her very first recording session with Wilson, on “I Wished on the Moon,” Billie took “very few harmonic or rhythmic liberties, relying less on syncopation than ironic enunciation—the sound of her voice—for its success.”

Farah Jasmine Griffin remarks that “Holiday’s rendering of lyrics, especially toward the end of her life, often sound more like a poet reading than a vocalist singing lyrics.” Henry Pleasants opines that Holiday produced one of “the wonders of vocal history. She did it by moving…along – or back and forth across – the thin, never precisely definable, line separating, or joining speech and song.”

“Speech-like” is a deceptive concept: intuitively graspable by every speaker, its particular qualities are consequently not often specified, outside the context of formal linguistic analysis. In the linguistic subcategory of phonology, the term “prosody,” encompassing “intonation, rhythm, tempo, loudness, and pauses” strongly suggests aspects of speech which overlap with music. Linguist Dwight Bolinger defines intonation as “a nonarbitrary, sound-symbolic system…conveying, underneath it all,
emotions and attitudes.” Geoff Lindsey proposes that “[w]e might reasonably expect there to be formal resemblances between intonational and musical interpretation.”

Such assertions encourage us to try to establish what, precisely, is “speech-like” about a Billie Holiday vocalization. Toward the pursuit of this inquiry, the authors prepared a specialized transcription of one recorded Billie Holiday performance (“All of Me,” recorded March 21, 1941), which is published below. Making reference to this transcription, we propose to highlight several vocal mannerisms characteristic of Billie’s style. These mannerisms include a preponderance of sliding or “kinetic” pitches; a drop of pitch on the voiced consonants L, M, N and Y; and soft or “blurred” diction. We will discuss some melodic and rhythmic consequences of these mannerisms; we will then recontextualize them in terms of linguistic analysis of spoken English.

We suggest that each of these three mannerisms tends to erode the distinction between speech and song. The first two do so by importing pitch-distorting behaviors, which are normal and indeed definitive in speech, into the environment of song, where they are more exceptional. The third mannerism operates upon our rhythmic discriminations:
it undermines our ability to pinpoint the instant of a word’s onset and thereby renders uncertain the precise duration of a note—a discrimination which is a normal part of our appreciation of song.

Billie’s art, as represented by this particular performance of “All of Me,” is one of melodic shape without abrupt boundaries of pitch or rhythm. The discrete pitches of a scale or chord are not the defining features of Billie’s melodic landscape. Rather, her lines are supple, continuously-sliding trajectories that, as we hope to demonstrate, both mirror and depend upon tendencies of spoken English.

We will then turn to another of our own transcriptions, this one a composite which juxtaposes four different Billie Holiday performances. A rare recording has preserved an interview in which Billie was asked to speak the words to Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s 1933 song “Yesterdays.”11 We made a pitch translation of this spoken version, as well as of portions of three sung performances of this song (1939, 1952 and 1956). Examination of this composite transcription suggests that Billie allowed, not only pitch tendencies, but specific pitches and intervals to migrate between speech and song.

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