by Wilma Dobie
Billie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary
edited by Leslie Gourse
(Schirmer Books, New York, 210 pages, $15.00, paperback)
from Jazz Notes 9/4 1997Copyright © 1997, Wilma Dobie
The bedeviled, many-faceted life of singer Billie Holiday continues to burn in the jazz world like the flame in the Arc de Triomphe. More books have been written on Holiday than any other female singer. With the notable exception of Louis Armstrong, "Lady Day" out-distances most prominent jazz artists for inspiring books and commentary ranging from biographies to reminiscences by those who knew her.
Feeding the flame anew and enlightening the tragic saga of Billie Holiday is a welcome addition to the ingenious Schirmer Books Companion Series, seasoned jazz writer Leslie Gourse's Billie Holiday: Seven Decades of Commentary. Gourse has undertaken the awesome task of drawing on 26 diverse writers, interviews with Holiday, and recordings to provide readers with an invaluable assessment of what is known and documented about the incomparable "Lady Day."
Gourse has arranged the writers' reflections on the singer's complex, topsy-turvy life in six segments with a preface by Whitney Balliett, noting that he ". . . ranks unquestionably as one of the greatest jazz critics of the century; some people choose him as their favorite." She backs this accolade by credibly pointing out, "His overview of Billie's life and art serves to introduce this entire Companion so well that all the other articles seem to flow from his precis."
The reader will find this book not only absorbing to read but a treasure as a jazz reference. The section titles reflect the objective assessment Gourse has given to her subject:
- Part One: God Bless the Child: Memoirs
- Part Two: What a Little Moonlight Can Do: Billie Holiday in Performance and in Her Own Words
- Part Three: Me, Myself and I: Billie Holiday on Record and in Print
- Part Four: Don't Explain: Billie Holiday and Her Contemporaries
- Part Five: Strange Fruit: Legacies
- Part Six: Heart and Soul: Billie Holiday Remembered.
These sources contain insights that will challenge the imagination of even the most avid Holiday fan and/or jazz researcher. Jazz Notes readers will do well to keep in mind that the recognition of jazz as an art form had hardly begun to crystallize in this country before Holiday's death in 1959. Its first serious acclaim and acceptance came in France and England.
Leonard Feather was to become one of the most prolific of jazz writers in addition to being involved in the jazz world as a musician, composer, and concert and record producer. Born in London in 1914, Feather came to the U.S. in 1935. It was shortly thereafter that he met Billie and he tended to idealize the singer for the rest of his life. Feather vividly recalls his first interview with her in 1938: "During my first visit to Billie's apartment, I found her poised and gracious. I knew no more about her private indulgences than Mrs. Holiday (mother) did, but had I known I'm sure I would have justified them with elaborate rationalizations. I have a theory about Billie that conflicts with the conventional explanations of her life and times. I believe if she had been taken out of the environment that was slowly beginning to swallow her up, the end would not have come when it did and her vivid patterns of gently twisted melody might still be part of our lives." Feather believed that, had Holiday accepted an offer from England, she would have been given "personal and economic security [and] the agony and the squalor might have been avoided."
Seven Decades of Commentary does not exclude the sour note sounded by critic Glen Coulter in reviewing her last recording: "Satin Doll is the name of a new Columbia record of twelve more or less insipid songs done by Billie against the neon arrangements of Ray Ellis. It is very nearly a total disaster." This is just for openers. Read on and Coulter swings into admiration: "Billie teases 'Comes Love' along: just imagine how arch another singer would be, or how self consciously sultry. (Next to Billie, others singing of love sound like little girls playing house)."
At a youthful seventeen years, Billie Holiday was discovered and first recorded by John Hammond, who was to become legendary for his discoveries and championing of black musicians. In an interview with Dan Morgenstern, then editor of down beat, the Columbia record producer recalled, "I first heard Billie in early 1933 when she was working at Monette Moore's gin mill on 133rd street. Her singing almost changed my musical tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I'd ever come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius. She was an extension almost of a Louis Armstrong; the way she sang around the melody, her uncanny harmonic sense, and her sense of lyric content was just unbelievable for a 17 year old girl."
It's only natural for readers to assume that Billie Holiday's autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues," tells us the real truth about her turbulent life. Her provocative opening is delightfully captivating: "Mom and Dad were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was fifteen, and I was three."
Some reviewers challenged her recollections for accuracy, but Orrin Keepnews believes: "The basic trouble with any 'celebrity autobiography' is that it is not honestly conceived." He moves on to substantiate: "I'm reasonably sure that Doubleday published this book largely because of its sensational aspects - dope, prison, and the rest of Billy's well headlined troubles, and its view of some rough behind-the-scene aspects of the Negro musician's world."
Perhaps the maze of paradoxes in the life of Billie Holiday is best told by Billie herself, in song. "The quality of her voice really told her stories," author Gourse suggests in her Preface. "Walt Whitman once wrote about himself, 'I contain multitudes'; so did Lady's sound."