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Authors: John Szwed

Billie Holiday

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Crossovers: Essays on Race, Music, and American Culture


Published by the Penguin Publishing Group

Penguin Random House LLC

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A Penguin Random House Company

First published by Viking Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015

Copyright © 2015 by John Szwed

Frontis image
© Herman Leonard Photography LLC

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the Estate of William Dufty for permission to reprint excerpts from
Lady Sings the Blues
by Billie Holiday with William Dufty (Doubleday, 1956) and selections from published and unpublished writings by William Dufty.


Szwed, John F., 1936–

Billie Holiday : the musician and the myth / John Szwed.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-101-61470-9

1. Holiday, Billie, 1915–1959. 2. Singers—United States—Biography. 3. African American women singers—United States—Biography. I. Title.

ML420.H58S99 2015


[B] 2015001092


To Heather, Matt, and Miles


any books have been written about Billie Holiday—over forty in English, French, and Italian. All those who have attempted to write about her have discovered that there are many Billie Holidays: one lively and joyful, another bitter and doomed to heartache; there is a Billie with a little girl's cry, and one with an older woman's growl; an early Billie, a middle, and a late one; a race woman and an internationally known chanteuse; a Billie who was one of the jazz boys, another one elegantly backed by violins. Put fifty or sixty photos of her on a table and you will see a heavyset woman and a sylph in silk, an African American and an Asian, a saucy miss and a broken drunk, a perp in a mug shot and a smiling matron posing with a pet. In some pictures she's completely unrecognizable.

During her brief forty-four years she managed to gather a dizzying number of names and personae. Look for her and you'll find Eleanora Fagan Gough, Eleanora Harris, Eleanora Fagan, Eleanora Monroe, Billy Holliday, Billie Halliday, Billie Holiday, and Lady Day. And just as there are different Holidays, there are different audiences for her singing: jazz fans, feminists, classical musicians, black militants, beats, gays, nightclub sophisticates, political leftists, showbiz insiders, punks, pop stars, each with its own particular image of her.

Unlike other singers of her day, she never had a big hit record and appeared in film and on television only a few times. Nonetheless, dozens of singers were influenced by her in her own time, most notably Peggy Lee,
Anita O'Day, June Christy, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Washington, Doris Day, and Frank Sinatra, who said she was the most important influence on singing in twenty years. Today she and Sinatra are the only singers still fully alive to us from over sixty years ago, still attracting biographical interest. Meanwhile, new reincarnations of her continue to arrive—Sade, Macy Gray, Erykah Badu, Tori Amos, Madeleine Peyroux, Amy Winehouse, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Audra McDonald, Annie Lennox—along with newer singers who drop her name to gain credibility.

All of her recordings are still available, many of them on YouTube. Her voice survived the shift in public taste during the rock era, and it still comes at us in coffeehouses and restaurants, on movie soundtracks, in musicals about her life and songs, countless tribute albums, rock allusions (such as U2's “Angel of Harlem”), even in TV cartoons (the Simpsons once sang “God Bless the Child”) and video games (
Grand Theft Auto
). As a character in films and novels, she represents an era, a style, a state of being. Her recordings trigger and guide emotions in affairs of the heart and affairs of state.
Barack Obama heard in her music a willingness to endure and the strength not to be hurt. Monica Lewinsky said that Holiday's “I'll Be Seeing You” was a song that she and Bill Clinton bonded over.

Much of what we think we know about Holiday, however, is questionable, and over time accounts of her life have been bent to serve some other purpose than telling her story. The sources for our image of her are biographies, her recordings, her choice of songs, filmed clips of her performances, interviews with those who knew or worked with her, journalists' and critics' commentaries, a handful of brief interviews with her, and a few articles written under her own name. But most of our picture of Holiday comes from two key sources. The first, her autobiography,
Lady Sings the Blues
, is a book that still puzzles close readers. Given the usual option of writing a tragedy or a romance—a story of triumph over great obstacles and odds, or a description of defeat—she chose to do both in one book, and did so with attitude. In the 1950s, when her autobiography first appeared, this was an unprecedented choice. Compare her autobiography with Bing Crosby's cheery
Call Me Lucky
or the spate
of press release–like biographies such as Barry Ulanov's
The Incredible Crosby
. As
a columnist in the
Los Angeles Mirror
suggested in 1950, “There has been the strangest conspiracy among even the gossip columnists to protect Bing . . . from any unfavorable stories.” The other crucial source for Holiday is the tireless research of her would-be biographer, Linda Kuehl, which produced well over a hundred interviews, extensive notes, documents, and many pages of writing completed before her tragic death ended the project. Much of her work subsequently appeared in print, though scattered through several biographies.

There is a powerful urge to treat performance as a form of autobiography, and since most love songs, in particular, are part of a long chain of melancholy, they are often interpreted as expressions of pain by the singer in question. Even when the same song is sung by dozens of different performers, one of them is usually singled out as the most authentic, often the one who is believed to have lived the song most fully. Holiday understood this inclination better than others, and as she grew older, she seemed consciously to choose songs that underlined what she had become for many:
Our Lady of Sorrows.

Racism, drug and alcohol abuse, and the brutality of some of the men in her life were sufficient to justify her mournful repertoire and a style that reinforced it. But suffering and pain are neither necessary nor sufficient to produce a great artist. Holiday was the singer she was because she knew how to rise above the easy pathos of so many of the songs that came her way and to bring a dignity, depth, and grandeur to her performances that went far beyond simply displaying the bruises she suffered.
As Stanley Crouch put it, the double consciousness of African American singing assures that melancholy can coexist with rhythmic exuberance, sorrow with swing, and Holiday treated this not as contradiction but as a means of transcendence.

Holiday is justly considered to be the greatest jazz singer of all time, though she never abandoned words to scat sing and improvise as freely as a horn player, a standard stylistic device of many jazz vocalists. She was also frequently referred to as a blues singer, though she sang very
few blues. She did cite Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong as influences, but many of her songs were also borrowed from theater and cabaret singers like Ethel Waters, Libby Holman, Fanny Brice, and Helen Morgan. Yet she personalized the styles of every singer she drew upon, black or white. Three songs that are often identified closely with Holiday are hardly the usual jazz fare: one, “My Man,” an account of the lover who beats and scorns her; the other two (both sometimes banned from radio when they were first recorded) recount a suicide (“Gloomy Sunday”) and a lynching (“Strange Fruit”). The simple truth is, stylistically, she ultimately owed very little to any singer who came before her, black or white, yet she is perhaps the only one among them who jazz fans of all generations can agree is a jazz singer.

Most of the writing about Billie Holiday thus far has wrestled with the apparent contradictions of and the enigma posed by her many selves. Some have sought to assess the actual degree of her victimization by claiming that there were fabrications in her autobiography and attributing them to her cowriter, to her editor, or to her. Others have become mired in the quest to understand her childhood in Baltimore and the facts of her parentage. The timeline that biographers typically develop for a subject is a problem in Holiday's case, as she left something of a jagged trail rather than an unbroken line. Even her FBI file is thin, confused, taken from newspaper clips, and inconclusive. Such is the mystery of Billie Holiday, and the problem she presents to any writer who tries to portray her.

Given her acknowledged stature as a musician, it is odd that many of the books on Holiday have only secondary interest in her music. But then again, maybe not so odd: music writing today is increasingly focused on lifestyles, as if the events of artists' lives are enough to explain their music, and the songs they record are treated primarily as documents in support of a given biographer's argument. In Holiday's case, the focus on the emotional power of her interpretations has tended to reduce her artistry, creativity, and enormous influence on the history of jazz to merely her ability to express feelings through music.

Most biographers look for those moments in an individual's life that unlock its secrets or at least sum it up, then weave a narrative that focuses
on these moments and ignores or downplays those that don't support their analysis. Many also tend to concentrate on the individuality of their subject, without attempting to understand her in the context of her time, her own society. But it could be worse: Some of the writing on Holiday that has appeared recently is heavily fictionalized.

From my perspective, these tactics for approaching Billie Holiday are now exhausted. I don't mean to say that the existing biographies are not valuable. Many of them have presented important facts and interpretations, and deserve to be read. Nor do I think that there will never again appear a biography that offers more interesting interpretations of her life. But that will be a difficult task because most of the witnesses to her life are gone; the existing interviews with those witnesses often conflict wildly, and some of them were not as close to her as they claimed, or they led lives that left them with something they wished to hide.

What I have tried to do is write a different kind of book, one that attempts to widen our sense of who Billie Holiday was, one that sets her life in the particular framework of the world in which she lived and in that specific musical time. But it also seeks to stay close to her music, to her performance style, to the self she created and put on record and onstage. It is not, therefore, a biography in the strictest sense, but rather a meditation on her art and its relation to her life. New material about her life has surfaced in the last decade, and while I have included it here, I hope that it will primarily be of interest in telling the story of her art. I have also drawn on a number of important writings by academics, most of which have not appeared in books or in easily available form; articles by Holiday herself and others close to her that have apparently not been previously consulted; books on Holiday in French and Italian; unpublished interviews and autobiographies by musicians; my own interviews; and the writings and notes of Linda Kuehl deposited in the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University–Newark by her editor, Frances McCullough.

 • • • • • 

Holiday's autobiography,
Lady Sings the Blues
, has been pored over for years by biographers in search of the truth, with special attention paid
to areas in which her coauthor, William Dufty, went wrong. But contrary to the usual viewpoints, most of the key sources for her book were actually newspaper and magazine interviews with Holiday, which confirms that it was she who was the source of at least some of the book's fabrications or misrememberings. There are other questions about
Lady Sings the Blues
that might be more productive, such as, if she did falsify some information about herself, why did she do so? Why is her book so similar to other jazz autobiographies or jazz-inflected novels that ambivalently describe the world of pimps and prostitutes—books such as
Miles: The Autobiography
, or Charles Mingus's
Beneath the Underdog
? What are these writers/musicians trying to communicate about themselves and others when they magnify or even glorify The Life, and then back away from it? Was it part of an effort to be authentic? (When Holiday was pressed about the authenticity of her book, she, like Miles Davis, ducked the question by saying she had never read it.)

What interests me most about
Lady Sings the Blues
is its musical detail, Holiday's ideas about the meaning of music, the ideology of jazz, her understanding of race in jazz and America, and her accounts of what shaped her musical development. But more important, I'm drawn, in an effort to see her authority restored, to attempting to understand what she hoped to accomplish with the publication of the book and how she went about it.

David Margolick's book
Strange Fruit
opened up the subject of Holiday's politics and the considerable impact of that particular song, but there is more to be said about her understanding of race. Holiday's life changed markedly when she began performing in downtown New York and on Fifty-second Street, where she came into contact with writers, Broadway actors, artists in the Village, society folk, and film people. It seems as if at one time or another almost everyone who knew her in New York City wished to write about her, paint her, perform with her, or marry her. Composer Ned Rorem worked her into his art songs and discussed her in his prose works. Jack Kerouac wanted to write about the woman he called “The Heroine of the Hip Generation,” and contended
with John Clellon Holmes to be the first to build a novel around her. (Holmes won, with his book
The Horn
.) Meanwhile, unbeknownst to both of them, Frank Harriott, a black writer uptown, had already begun such a novel, but never lived to publish it. Today, Holiday herself is seen by some as a literary figure, along with Zora Neale Hurston, one of the first to fashion complex narratives about the lives of black women, and therefore a predecessor to the likes of Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange.

It is these and other issues that continue to make Billie Holiday a mystery, and that have led me to write yet another book about

BOOK: Billie Holiday
3.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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