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billie holiday

28 may 2016

John Szwed's Billie Holiday is an odd critical biography, written in short bits with some repetition, as if it were a bunch of columns stitched together (though I see no sign that it is). It's meta and sometimes esoteric; it's unconventionally organized; it's consistently interesting.

Szwed begins with two chapters that critique Billie's 1956 autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. I haven't read Lady Sings the Blues, but I have no qualms about enjoying critical discussions of books I haven't read. The memoir, co-written by William Dufty, has been controversial. It scandalized readers who didn't want to hear about a pop star involved in drugs and sexual license, if you can imagine such readers 60 years later. Szwed examines how the book has been seen as both too filtered through Dufty's editing and embellishment, or not sufficiently fact-checked by Dufty. Szwed's take is that memoirs are memoirs; they're about what you remember. Billie Holiday had her own way of remembering things, a way that made sense to her even if the realities can never now be checked. And little enough is known about her life, especially her early life, independent of Lady Sings the Blues.

Quite a few celebrity anecdotes were apparently cut from the book before it went to press, and Szwed restores some of them. There are vignettes of Orson Welles avoiding work on several different film projects by cavorting with Billie, Tallulah Bankhead alternately scrapping and schmoozing with the singer, Billie on her one trip to the White House running into FDR, in a wheelchair and on morphine, behind the scenes.

After some material on Billie's infrequent theater, film, and TV work, Szwed spends about 3/5 of the book tracing her singing and recording careers from early influences (Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, Mabel Mercer) through the great era of intimate jazz recordings in the 1930s, to "Strange Fruit," "Gloomy Sunday," and the lush arrangements she worked in for Commodore and Decca after the war, to her return to simple jazz for Verve – and finally to her final albums, Lady in Satin and Last Recording, which I'd never heard. (Not many people have heard them, because they were derided as overproduced and exploitative. And maybe they are, but they're at least something additional by an artist whose surviving work is limited when compared to that of Fitzgerald or Sinatra.)

Szwed is endlessly (and appropriately) appreciative of the way that Billie used her voice as a jazz instrument. He cites, for instance, her recording of "I'll Get By", with Teddy Wilson on piano and an all-star ensemble, as a quintessential jazz vocal – the repetition of the same note over and over, as in so many instrumental jazz solos, turning the lyrics into an entirely different song (the vocal line bearing almost no resemblance to the sheet music). Another of Szwed's themes is how Billie (and her amazing sidemen, including Lester Young, Bennie Goodman, and just about any great musician she and Wilson could assemble on a given day) could transform ordinary songwriting into tremendous music. One of Szwed's favorites is one of mine, the otherwise little-recorded "Reaching for the Moon". Again, you wouldn't really know how the melody goes if Wilson hadn't established it first, and to hear Billie Holiday sing it is one of the great musical experiences.

Szwed, John. Billie Holiday: The musician and the myth. New York: Viking [Penguin Random House], 2015.

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