WBGO Blog
  • Billie Holiday: A Singer Beyond Our Understanding

    April 7, 2015

    image
    Billie Holiday has become a mythic presence in absentia. (Image Credit: William Gottlieb/Getty Images)

    Most artists belong to their times, but Billie Holiday, born 100 years ago Tuesday, fits in the present. In a way, she died before her time, just as the country was beginning to talk about race, drugs, feminism and misogyny — all of which converged in her life.

    Her death in July 1959 was only briefly noticed in the media. Few would have imagined then that the centennial of her birth would be an occasion for remembrance. But legends are about a state of mind, not a state of being, and some thrive best when they're not in competition with a living person. This is especially true of Holiday.

    There was something special about her. Jazz musicians and some fans heard it, and so did a young record producer named John Hammond. He heard an 18-year-old Holiday sing in a small club in April 1933.

    "I listened to this girl, and I just couldn't believe my ears that here was a singer who sounded like an instrumentalist, like one of the most advanced instrumentalists there had ever been," Hammond once said. "So I started talking to Billie, and Billie had had a fairly checkered career by then. She'd been in jail and everything. And Billie had already been arrested for prostitution at 14."

    In 1935, Hammond began recording her with pianist Teddy Wilson, who put together small jazz groups that included some of the best musicians in New York: Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Ben Webster.

    They sold well enough. And by the late 1930s, she had made more than 100 records. But in 1938, in the prime of her career, she ranked only 14th in the annual Down Beat reader poll. Many didn't know her name, even at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom.

    In 1939, Holiday heard a song called "Strange Fruit." But the recording label Columbia refused to record it, so she made it for a tiny jazz label. It was a slow, somber, frightening dirge about an unspeakable topic — lynching.

    "Strange Fruit" changed Holiday from a jazz singer to an actress. Her performances became small, intimately structured theater. She played herself, sitting on a stool in a pin spotlight with a gardenia in her hair.

    The rest of her life became a theater of self-destruction. Her albums became increasingly difficult to listen to as her voice hardened into a gnarled cackle. She forgot lyrics. She lost her confidence.

    In July 1959, she died in a New York hospital, under arrest on drug charges and cuffed to her hospital bed. The New York Times ran a short, un-bylined obituary on page 15. She was 44 and left an estate of $1,000. Her greatest work of the '30s was mostly out of print. Soon, all that was about to change.

    Holiday's renaissance began quietly. In 1961, she was voted to the Down Beat Hall Of Fame. Soon after, Columbia restored nearly 100 of her greatest early records. In the '70s, Diana Ross won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues.

    Holiday's 1941 recording of "God Bless The Child" entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1976. There would be another 22 posthumous Grammy wins or nominations associated with her work. In 2000, she was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Now, more than half a century after her death, every record she ever made is in print.

    Great talents who court their own doom are forever fascinating to us, because they seem beyond our understanding. Maybe that's why Holiday became the mythic presence she is in absentia. That presence loomed larger than ever last year, when Audra McDonald brought it to Broadway in Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill. McDonald accepted her sixth Tony Award on Holiday's behalf.

    "I want to thank all the shoulders of the strong and brave and courageous women that I am standing on ... and most of all, Billie Holiday," McDonald said in her acceptance speech. "You deserve so much more than you were given when you were on this planet. This is for you."

    Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • Cassandra Wilson Sings Billie Holiday

    March 31, 2015

    image
    Cassandra Wilson. (Image Credit: Mark Seliger/Courtesy of the artist)

    One hundred years after she was born, Billie Holiday remains iconic in American music, not to mention jazz singing. Cassandra Wilson has made her career in jazz singing by embracing a wide range of American music, and it holds true on her latest project: a new album rearranging the Billie Holiday songbook. The new Coming Forth By Day, created with rocker Nick Cave's producer and rhythm section, reshapes songs like "Good Morning Heartache" and "Strange Fruit" with fresh textures and resonances.

    For Billie Holiday's centennial, Jazz Night In America presents Cassandra Wilson in concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., performing her take on the classic tunes.

    Copyright 2015 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit .

  • Anat Cohen's Roots Of Rio

    March 26, 2015

    image
    Anat Cohen. (Image Credit: Jimmy Katz/Anzic Records)

    The genre choro — a word which means "cry" in Portuguese — is often described as "the New Orleans jazz of Brazil." Like its U.S. counterpart, both are Afro-Western hybrids which emerged in the early 20th century; both call for jam sessions showcasing improvisation and virtuosity. Both jazz and choro are also the domains of clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen. Her newest band, the quartet Choro Aventuroso, culminates an affinity and intense study of Brazilian music — one which began as part of an international community of jazz students at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

    Jazz Night In America visits Jazz at Lincoln Center to catch Cohen's group play its modernized take on waltzes, mazurkas and African-Brazilian rhythms such as the lundu — all of which help characterize the essence of choro.

    Copyright 2015 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit .