Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Lady Is the Blues This Solid Biography Focuses on Billie Holiday the Artist, Not on Sensationalism

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Lady Is the Blues This Solid Biography Focuses on Billie Holiday the Artist, Not on Sensationalism

Article excerpt

"BILLIE HOLIDAY"

By John Szwed

Viking ($28.95)

To trace African-American music over the past 150 years is to trace the history of American music. The European tradition of classical music was popular with Americans who could attend the symphony or opera and perhaps buy a piano for the parlor, but this was a very small segment of the country.

The minstrel show, which had been around since the 1870s, was embraced by both whites and blacks. Negro spirituals, drawing on a long history of funeral marches and work songs, had been making their way into the musical mainstream for an even longer time. Ragtime came on the scene in the 1890s.

But the tipping point occurred sometime around the turn of the last century with the advent of recorded music. At that time, even the most isolated communities were subject to a new kind of music that was emerging even though they most likely did not know the origin. It was jazz, with its syncopated rhythms, improvisational style and freedom to borrow from any culture that blew up American music.

Rich or poor, everyone had a radio, and it was free. The record business was booming. Vocalists such as Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey and blues singer Bessie Smith changed the American singing style for good.

Into this milieu, as the Roaring '20s turned into the Great Depression, Billie Holiday, still in her mid-teens, was slowly making a name for herself singing in the nightclubs along 133rd Street in Harlem. She would, of course, in her very short lifetime become one of our most important vocalists. The concept of jazz vocalist, or for that matter, a female singer having a career separate from a band or Broadway or a Vaudeville company did not exist before Billie Holiday.

Performing standards from the American songbook, she immersed herself so intensely into the lyrics that she seemed to be living them. She sang from the point of view of black women. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.