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Miss Holiday to You: Jazz United Weighs In on 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday' and 'Billie'

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Hulu
Andra Day as Billie Holiday and Kevin Hanchard as Louis Armstrong in 'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

“I’m always making a comeback, but nobody ever tells me where I’ve been.”

So said Billie Holiday in the 1950s, making no attempt to conceal her bemusement. By that point in her career, she’d seen it all, with each turn of fortune breathlessly chronicled.

Since her death more than 60 years ago, that compulsion has produced a series of depictions of Holiday, most visibly in Hollywood and on Broadway. And it’s easy to understand why. The impact of Holiday’s legacy as a song stylist and cultural icon is critical — and her endurance of a lifetime of abuse, tragedy and discrimination casts a shadow nearly as large as her artistry. Often, in fact, the artistry gets overshadowed.  

  The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a Lee Daniels film premiering today on Hulu, is a case in point. A star vehicle for Andra Day, it’s a story about the government’s targeting and takedown of Holiday in an early phase of the war on drugs. But Daniels and his collaborators distort or enhance so many details that they fall right into the familiar entanglements. 

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So in this episode of Jazz United, we unpack our objections to The United States vs. Billie Holiday — and consider another, more fruitful recent film, James Erskine’s 2020 documentary Billie.  

Drawing on the research of would-be Holiday biographer Linda Kuehl, Billie is as close to a definitive document as we’re likely to get. Erskine builds his film around copious audio interviews that Kuehl conducted for her book: with Holiday’s fellow icons, like Count Basie and Jo Jones, as well as a host of sidemen, friends and acquaintances. We hear about Billie on and off the bandstand — reminded that she had fun in addition to her troubles, and harbored goals and dreams beyond those contained in her ageless music.

Music Featured in This Episode:

  • "All of Me," Billie Holiday with Eddie Heywood and His Orchestra (1941)
  • "All of Me," Andra Day, Music From the Motion Picture “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (2021)
  • "Speak Low," Billie Holiday (1956) 

Further Reading:

Jazz United is produced by Sarah Kerson. Our senior producer is Simon Rentner.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.