Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
JAZZ A Film By Ken Burns
Places, Spaces and Changing Faces
Jazz Lounge
Jazz in Time
Behind the Beat
Biographies
Jazz Exchange
About the Show
JAZZ Kids
Related Links
Jazz Near You
Classroom
Shop Jazz
Jazz Links
Jazz Cards
Home
Miles Davis circa 1955; Duke Ellington; Louis Armstrong; Cover of Sheet Music by Fats Waller
BiographiesSelected Artist Biography
Biographies, Life and times of the great ones Billie Holiday in Performance 1948; Benny Goodman 1936; Art Blakey at the Open Door in NYC; Awning of Village Vanguard 1960's
Billie Holiday

Powered by Oxford University Press.

Fagan, Eleanora; Lady Day (1915 - 1959) Singer

Audio sampleStrange Fruit
Recorded April 20, 1939
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)


Audio sample Solitude
Recorded May 9, 1941
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)


Billie Holiday
Image courtesy of Herman Leonard
Billie Holiday was the daughter of Clarence Holiday. Her early life is obscure, as the account given in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, is self-serving and inaccurate. Her father abandoned the family early and refused to acknowledge his daughter until after her first success. At some point in her childhood, her mother moved to New York, leaving her in the care of her relatives who, according to Holiday, mistreated her. She did menial work, had little schooling, and in 1928 went to New York to join her mother.

According to her own story, she was recruited for a brothel and was eventually jailed briefly for prostitution. At some point after 1930, she began singing at a small club in Brooklyn, and in a year or so moved to Pods' and Jerry's, a Harlem club well known to jazz enthusiasts. In 1933, she was working in another Harlem club, Monette's, where she was discovered by the producer and talent scout John Hammond. Hammond immediately arranged three recording sessions for her with Benny Goodman and found engagements for her in New York clubs. In 1935, he began recording her regularly, usually under the direction of Teddy Wilson, with studio bands that included many of the finest jazz musicians of the day. These recordings, made between 1935 and 1942, constitute a major body of jazz music; many include work by Lester Young, with whom Holiday had particular empathy. Though aimed mainly at the black jukebox audience, the recordings caught the attention of musicians throughout America and soon other singers were working in Holiday's light, rhythmic manner.

Audio sampleWithout Your Love
Recorded June 15, 1937
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)


NPR Audio Feature NPR's Louis Armstrong Centennial Radio Project: Billie Holiday
Jazz critic Stanley Crouch profiles Billie Holiday and reveals how she was influenced by Armstrong.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


Popularity with a wider audience came more slowly. Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937 and Artie Shaw in 1938, becoming one of the first black singers to be featured with a white orchestra. Then, in 1939, she began an engagement at Cafe Society (Downtown), an interracial nightclub in Greenwich Village, which quickly became fashionable with intellectuals and the haut monde, especially those on the political left. At about the same time, she recorded for Commodore Records a song about the lynching of blacks called Strange Fruit; it was admired by intellectuals, and very quickly Holiday began to acquire a popular following. She started to have success with slow, melancholy songs of unrequited love, particularly Gloomy Sunday (1941), a suicide song, and Lover Man (1944). By the end of the 1940s, she was a popular star, and in 1946 took part in the film New Orleans with Louis Armstrong and Kid.

Billie Holiday
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
At the same time her career was taking off, Holiday's private life was deteriorating. She started using hard drugs in the early 1940s and was jailed on drug charges in 1947 after a highly publicized trial. She compulsively attached herself to men who mistreated her, and she began drinking heavily. Her health suffered; she lost most of her by then substantial earnings, and her voice coarsened through age and mistreatment. Although she continued to sing and record, and to tour frequently until the mid-1950s, it was no longer with her former spirit and skill.

Audio sampleFine and Mellow
Recorded December 8, 1957
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)


NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "Fine and Mellow"
Critic Nat Hentoff describes Billie Holiday's legendary 1957 performance of this song, a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


Holiday is often considered the foremost female singer in jazz history, a view substantiated by her influence on later singers. Her important work is found in the group recordings made mostly for Hammond between 1936 and 1944. Her vehicles were mainly popular love songs, some of them long forgotten, others among the best of the time. Her voice was light and untrained, but she had a fine natural ear to compensate for her lack of musical education. She always acknowledged her debt to Armstrong for her singing style, and it is certainly in emulation of him that she detached her melody line from the ground beat, stretching or condensing the figures of the melody, as on the opening of Did I Remember? (1936).

Audio Feature Wynton Marsalis, musician
Reflections on Billie Holiday
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


More than nearly any other singer, Holiday phrased her performances in the manner of a jazz instrumental soloist, and accordingly she has to be seen as a complete jazz musician and not merely a singer. Nevertheless, her voice, even in the light and lively numbers she often sang during her early period, carried a wounded poignancy that was part of her attraction for general audiences. Although Holiday claimed also to have taken Bessie Smith as her model, she sang few blues, and none in the powerful, weighted manner of Smith. She was, however, a master of blues singing, as for example on Fine and Mellow (1939), which she built around blue thirds descending to seconds to create an endless tension perfectly suited to the forlorn text.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Billie Holiday
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend Holiday's Lady in Satin (Sony Legacy).
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
Grove Music