WBGO Blog
  • Billie Holiday: A Singer Beyond Our Understanding

    April 7, 2015

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    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/.

  • WBGO JAM Live 2015: Manhattan School Of Music Jazz Quintet

    April 6, 2015. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    The Manhattan School of Music Jazz Quintet performs live at WBGO for Jazz Appreciation Month, directed by Justin DiCioccio. Click below to hear this concert, and tune in to 88.3 FM to hear this group featured on air during the second week of April. A full set list is below.

    Every week in April, WBGO-FM will showcase a different student ensemble with vocalists who performed live in our studios for Jazz Appreciation Month. All of these full sets will be available online. Enjoy!

    msm669

    Manhattan School of Music Jazz Quintet
    March 19th, 2015
    Director, Justin DiCioccio

    "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" (vocals) by Harry M. Woods
    "The Peacocks" (vocals)  Jimmy Rowles
    "Everything Happens To Me" (vocals +flute) by Tom Adair, Matt Dennis
    "Day Dream" by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, lyrics by John La Touche

    All arrangements are original

    Elena Pinderhughes - Voice, Flute
    Patrick Bartley - Alto Saxophone
    Billy Test - Piano
    Dion Kerr - Bass
    Evan Sherman - Drums

  • WBGO in South Africa 8: In Cape Town

    April 6, 2015. Posted by Rhonda Hamilton.

    The culmination of our trip was the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, “Africa’s Grandest Gathering."

    As the festival celebrated its 16th year, they chose to honor the 50th anniversary of the legendary South African mbaqanga singing group, the Mahotella Queens.

    Photo credit: Esa Alexander/Sunday Times
    Photo credit: Esa Alexander/Sunday Times

    One of the original members, lead singer Hilda Tloubatla, is still with the group.

    “We’ve got the spirit of the true musicians," she said, when asked what keeps the Mahotella Queens going strong. "We know how to go about a song - how to do a song.”

    Well, you can believe that! From the first note, these ladies energized the crowd, which gave them a rousing reception.

    Rounds of thunderous applause and loving shouts and screeches of approval echoed throughout the huge concert hall.

    Photo credit: Ignatius Mokolone
    Photo credit: Ignatius Mokone

    The concert of South African musical icon Hugh Masekela was the one that moved me most. The trumpeter is internationally revered as one of our master musicians.

    More than any other artist, he has introduced the world to the music and culture of South Africa.

    To be in the midst of an adoring South African audience as Hugh Masekela performed was a thrill I will never forget. You could feel the love they have for him, and he for them, his brothers and sisters.

    My soul stirred as soon as I heard the familiar introduction to “Coal Train” (Stimela), Masekela’s dedication to the men who work in South Africa’s mines.

    I’ve heard this song many times before, but this time, I heard it with new ears and a new understanding.

    There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi

    There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe,

    There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique,

    From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland,

    From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa.

    This train carries young and old, African men

    Who are conscripted to come and work on contract

    In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg

    And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day

    For almost no pay.

    Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth

    When they are digging and drilling

    For that shiny mighty evasive stone,

    Or when they dish that mish mesh mush food

    into their iron plates with the iron shank.

    Or when they sit in their stinky, funky, filthy,

    Flea-ridden barracks and hostels.

    They think about the loved ones they may never see again

    Because they might have already been forcibly removed

    From where they last left them

    Or wantonly murdered in the dead of night

    By roving and marauding gangs of no particular origin.

    We are told they think about their land and their herds

    That were taken away from them with a gun, and the bomb

    and the teargas and the cannon.

    And when they hear that Choo-Choo train

    They always curse, curse the coal train,

    The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.

    Rhonda and Masekela600

    Thank you, South Africa. Thanks to our hosts Hema Shah of Immersion Journeys and Judy Pillay of South African Tourism, and their respective staffs.

    In Hema’s words, you are “awesome!”

    Thanks to my colleague Simon Rentner for your hard work and for facilitating this trip, and to the team at WBGO.

    Most of all, thanks to all of the wonderful people who were part of our group, and with whom we shared this amazing journey.