Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Holiday Blues: Music: Richard Cook: Laments the Premature Decline of a Legend Shadowed by Sadness

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Holiday Blues: Music: Richard Cook: Laments the Premature Decline of a Legend Shadowed by Sadness

Article excerpt

MUSIC

RICHARD COOK laments the premature decline of a legend shadowed by sadness.

So many distracting bits of legend have attached themselves to Billie Holiday's name that it is hard to hear her clearly. To contemporary listeners, the narcotic qualities of her singing are no more attractive, apparently, than the haze of pain and mystique of put-upon genius under which her surviving records labour. Most know Holiday only as the sad old woman of the albums that she made in the era of the LP. When she died, at 44, her voice had declined to a croak that would have shocked anyone familiar with her first sessions. The insufferable Lady in Satin (Columbia), where she is attended by the weeping strings of a full orchestra rather than the small-group jazz that she seemed to prefer, is a ghoulish farewell. Billie's mannerisms staying behind the beat, holding on to unexpected parts of the line and turning a sexy drawl into a win some ambivalence-have been matters on which singers have studied ever since her emergence in the Thirties. Everyone from Sinatra to Streisand has acknowledged their debt to her. Pop vocalists who crave credibility drop her name as an influence. Tribute albums still make their way on to the racks in record shops.

Yet Holiday makes an uncomfortable model. For all her toughness as a performer, she projects doom. Signature pieces such as "Don't Explain" and "Good Morning Heartache" are cloudy with a melancholy that she cannot bring herself to understand- the artist as willing submissive. Good-natured performances such as her Verve recording of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" often become an awkward truce between offhand gaiety and a feeling that bad times are just around the corner. Norman Granz, who produced most of her later records, seemed to want to rekindle the atmosphere of her early discs, but instead found only a ghost: the music was slower, more stretched, and often hopelessly fatigued. When she made a recording of her set-piece blues "Fine and Mellow" for the celebrated Sound of Jazz television broadcast of 1957, appearing alongside her equally wayward old partner, Lester Young, Holiday seemed as if she were somewhere else altogether, rocking her head and smiling absently as if listening to something on a different stage, or in a different head.

This feeble decline has been well enough chronicled in a string of biographies, with husbands and lovers and other bad habits ruining both her voice and her temperament. But there was another Holiday, whose surviving recordings are far less well known, except to the core jazz audience. The tireless talent scout John Hammond originally recommended her to Benny Goodman, with whom she made one record (the delightful "Your Mother's Son-in-Law" and "Riffin' the Scotch"), but it was as a member of a cadre of New York players that she made her mark as a recording artiste. Most of the sessions were under the discreet leadership of the pianist Teddy Wilson, that most urbane of players; and with pals such as Young, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton and Ben Webster often in attendance, the music epitomised the gracious bounce and invention that was a hallmark of original small-group swing. …

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