Celebrating Billie Holiday’s Centennial

Billie Holiday (1915–1959) is one of the most iconic figures in jazz. One indication of her enduring influence is that last year, there were two plays about her in New York: “Lady Day”starring Dee Dee Bridgewater, who had won a Grammy Award for her Holiday tribute album, and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” starring Audra McDonald, for which she won a Tony Award for best actress. As Holiday’s 100th birthday approaches on April 7, the singer will be honored by the music world.

The best way to remember a singer is to listen to her recordings, and Columbia Records/Legacy is releasing “Billie Holiday: The Centennial Collection.” The single disc contains 20 songs recorded between 1935 and 1945. These recordings come from the earlier part of her career when her voice was at its best.

Holiday had a rough childhood but was discovered in 1933 singing in a Harlem nightclub by legendary producer John Hammond. He arranged for her to record shortly afterward and continued to produce many of her recordings during the next decade. The recordings were released under the names of Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra or Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. They featured top swing musicians, a mixture of white and black jazzmen.

Benny Goodman (who led the first prominent integrated jazz group with Wilson on piano) appears on the up-tempo “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” as well as “Why Was I Born?” and “I Must Have That Man.” Artie Shaw plays clarinet on a swing version of “Summertime” and “Billie’s Blues.” (She later became a vocalist with his band for eight months.)  

The recordings also include the cream of the Basie and Ellington bands (including Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Freddie Green, and most notably saxophonist Lester Young. He bestowed on Holiday the nickname of Lady Day and she named him Prez.)

The sound of Holiday’s light voice is unmistakable and she emulated horn players, making her vocals fit seamlessly into the performances. Her approach influenced many musicians, not only singers but even instrumentalists, such as trumpeter Miles Davis. (The liner notes contain a photograph of the two of them in a nightclub.) At the same time, her enunciation was flawless, and she could convey the emotion of the ballads (for example, “Lover Man” or “Gloomy Sunday”) without becoming lachrymose or sound carefree on “Them There Eyes” and “I Can’t Get Started.”

Holiday had to leave Columbia Records to record “Strange Fruit,” a harrowing song about a lynching. This and her self-penned blues “Fine and Mellow” (also on the CD) were a hit on Milt Gabler’s Commodore label. Gabler was the uncle of comedian Billy Crystal and during his one-man show “700 Sundays,” he spoke of Holiday taking him to the movies for the first time.

The most famous song that Holiday wrote was “God Bless the Child” (co-penned by Arthur Herzog Jr.). According to her autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” the song was inspired by a fight over money that Holiday had with her mother. The version here was recorded in 1941.

The Centennial Collection is first-rate and a perfect introduction to her recordings. It should be noted, though, that Holiday made many other important recordings during these years as well as afterward. While her voice deteriorated in her last decade and she could no longer convincingly perform the more cheerful material, she could plumb the depths of the more downbeat songs, such as “You’ve Changed” on her 1958 “Lady in Satin” album.

Holiday’s birthday will be celebrated by the Apollo Theater (253 West 125th Street), where she had performed over 20 times. In fact, she had first appeared there in 1934, the year the theater opened. On April 6, the singer will be inducted into the Apollo Walk of Fame.

Cassandra Wilson has a new album paying tribute to Holiday, “Coming Forth by Day” (on Legacy), and she will perform songs from the album at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, on April 10. For tickets, call 212-531-5305 or 1-800-745-3000 or go to Ticketmaster.com.

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