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60 Years Without Billie

At the heart of summer 1959, Billie Holiday tiptoed off stage ...

By Marc ZISMAN | Video of the Day | July 17, 2019
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At 3 :10 AM on Friday, July 17th, 1959, Billie Holiday drew her last breath on a bed of the Metropolitan Hospital of New York. She’d lain there, in the grips of agonizing pain for weeks, as the police watched over her for a drug possession charge. Lady Day died at only 44 years old. The suffering in her life, as it came through in her voice and her discography, was never equaled. Her blues soul, her broken heart and battered body remain the ultimate expression of silk-draped misery.

She was born April 7th, 1915, as a cry before anything else. Even in her softest moments, Billie Holiday was a chapter of her own in the history of jazz. She was a singer who used her voice like you’d use a saxophone – like a flood of notes, that were nothing like singing for the time. That unusual voice. It bothered people. And it still bothers them today. Raspy? Twisted? Off-tempo? Washed out? She sounded like the very fiber of her own painful existence, as it was put into words in her autobiography (Lady Sings The Blues) only three years earlier in 1956.

Rape, prostitution, prison, drugs and alcohol : these were the beads of desolation and penitence which Billie Holiday threaded on to the necklace of her life. Enough substance to inspire any sane-minded Hollywood scriptwriter. That same substance would be the body of her work, and a platform for so many others to reflect upon their own sorrows: from Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Mal Waldron, Count Basie and his pal Teddy Wilson, to so many others, they all recognized and accepted Billie’s poetry with open arms, as it mirrored the thread of their own moods, or own lives.



Billie Holiday’s art was so personal that it ended up reflected a more widespread pain: that of the Afro-American community. Unavoidably, that brings us to the cornerstone of her work: the 1939 discovery of Strange Fruit, the poem about a lynching in the deep south. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees … A strange fruit which was none other than a man’s body. Its music, written by pianist Sonny White, and the poem itself by Lewis Allen, became one of the singer’s hymns.



Another hymn, another story : the crossing of paths between Lady Day and the saxophone player Lester Young – one of the most prolific associations in the history of jazz. From 1937 to 1941, their partnership led to nearly 50 masterpieces, as moving and tender on the surface as they were troubled and broken at the core.



In the end, the word “feeling”, much like “bewitching” or “moving”, seems to have been created just for Billie Holiday’s voice, for how bluesy it was. In her Verve recordings (the sublime Lady Sings The Blues in 1956, Songs For Distingué Lovers in 1957, and the controversial Lady In Satin of 1958 – how cadaverous is that voice?) she explored all of the colours of that emotional palette, between pure emotion and pure suffering. When her voice went quiet 60 years ago, Billie Holiday found her rest. At last.

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