Jazz and Pop, Youth and Middle Age like Young

By Francis Davis | Go to book overview

Billie Holiday, Cover Artist

Few people alive today, even among her most ardent fans, have heard Billie Holiday other than on recordings or seen her other than in photographs and random film clips. Holiday was eighteen years old and a worldly former prostitute when she recorded ''Your Mother's Son-in‐ Law" with Benny Goodman in 1933; she died from the cumulative effects of heroin and alcohol in 1959, a ravaged forty-four. Yet with the obvious exception of Frank Sinatra, who was born in the same year as Holiday but outlived her by almost four decades (during which he was a constant presence in movies and on television), no other recording artist from the first half of the last century seems more real to us—more like our contemporary.

Dating back to the 1940s, when schoolkids fought over whose big band was better, Goodman's or Artie Shaw's, jazz aficionados have enjoyed nothing more than debating the relative merits of different performers. But when conversation turns to Billie Holiday, the only way to start a fight is to state a preference for early, middle, or late—her jaunty recordings of the 1930s, her diva-like ballads of the 1940s, or her work from the 1950s, when she had almost nothing left but compensated for her husk of a voice with the intimacy of her phrasing (by that point, closer to speech than song). That Holiday was the greatest woman jazz singer ever is accepted as incontestable fact, no matter how fond you or the person you're talking to might be of Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughan.

But Holiday has never appealed exclusively to jazz listeners, nor has her appeal ever depended solely on her vocal artistry. As was true in

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