Billie Holiday at 100: Still an Inspiration

On Billie Holiday's centennial, her influence remains everywhere in music. Jazz singers Cassandra Wilson and Jose James, have new tributes out on Blue Note.
Cassandra Wilson
Coming Forth by Day
Blue Note

The sound of worldwide popular music today started with a small handful of unique and revolutionary voices from about a century ago. The pulse of jazz, soul, and rock started in public parks and brothels in New Orleans and on front porches or street corners all through the American south. The American syncopated groove, the throbbing insistence of swing, the glory of the backbeat, the hip-snapping joy of funk — they date back to those early incubators.

And the voice in that new music, the human cry of it, began with the natural blues shouts that rose up out of work songs and spirituals. But this new pop singing truly became special when the blues swagger was leavened with melodic sophistication by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and, a little later, Billie Holiday.

Holiday was born 100 years ago. In Philadelphia on 7 April 1915, Eleanora Fagan started her well-known saga. She grew up in Baltimore without her dad and survived an attempted rape at 11, She was running errands in a brothel by 12, living without her mom, then rejoined her mother in Harlem at 13, where they were soon both turning tricks, arrested, and jailed.

It’s a sad, hard story, of course, later involving drugs, abusive husbands, and more. But it’s redeemed by beauty and art. Young Eleanora heard records by Armstrong and Smith back in Baltimore, and Harlem provided nightclubs where the young woman, taking on her now-famous pseudonym, started performing before she was 15.

By the time Holiday was 18, she had made a record with Benny Goodman, a superstar of the swing era, and by 20 she had recorded a series of records that would cement her as a jazz master. And today, more than 50 years after she died in New York at 44, her influence is as strong as ever.

The Billie Holiday Sound

A few syllables into a Holiday vocal and you’re sucked in. It’s sweet and tart at once. It buzzes with edge, true, as her voice had a whiskey crackle, but the young Billie, the one who recorded a string of lissome pop songs with the wonderful small bands of pianist Teddy Wilson between 1935-38, was very nearly still a girl with a bit of a laugh in her throat. Her vocals bounced and swayed even as they bit you a little. Twenty years later her range would drop with a tragic gravity that many loved equally, but those early sides were a balance of sunshine and wisdom.

Holiday’s music came out of the influence of Armstrong, a truth that she often acknowledged. She copped Armstrong’s sense of behind-the-beat phrasing and insistent propulsion and swing. And in hearing her today, this is what you shouldn’t miss: her marvelous, magical sense of time. Like Armstrong, she was constantly playing with time, aware of the beat even as she danced around it like Muhammad Ali in the ring — jabbing, floating, bobbing.

What she took from Armstrong was not a jazzy, scat-happy approach, but rather a rhythmically pliant approach to putting across the words of a song. Holiday did not have a huge range, but she had something more important: an understanding of the importance of economy. If you listen to the 1937 recording with Teddy Wilson and her good friend tenor saxophonist Lester Young, “He’s Funny That Way”, you can’t miss it. Holiday sings the main melody with curving, legato ease, bending her notes effortlessly. Then, on the bridge (“I can see no other way / And no better plan”) she moves up the scale like a tap dancer: on the beat, then ahead of it, then shifting behind it only to catch up again. In a few lines of lyric, she teaches you what jazz singing really is. “I always wanted to sing like an instrument,” Holiday said in a radio interview, and she did — but slyly.

She used her unique timbre in a manner that was deeply personal but also indebted to the instrumentalists she so admired. Holiday was never a blues shouter like Smith, but she understood the power of using the blues singer’s arsenal of inflections, sneers, bends, and effects. Her tone could be quite pretty, but in a focused, piercing way, like she was Roy Eldridge, muted and buzzing, or like she was Young, blue and with a hint of growl.

In her later years, as the youthful bounce passed out of her repertoire, Holiday’s tone became even more distinctive and dominant. But as late as two years before her death, when she filmed “The Sound of Jazz” for CBS in 1957, she still had a coy combination of tone and time on “Fine and Mellow”. The one and only Billie Holiday: she still sounded exactly like herself. And soon enough lots of others singers would try.

Influence Well Beyond Jazz

It’s impossible to imagine American music without Holiday. Few singers who followed her in jazz would fail to cite her influence. But more remarkably, her influence has spread well beyond jazz.

Holiday was the among the first singers to exploit completely the opportunities for singing intimately with a microphone. She purred into it, but even when she cried out a song, it was in relation to the mic, to how it could pick up the nuances in her sound. As a result, nearly every modern singer comes out of that essential innovation. Holiday at her core, was already exploiting a technical change in how music was made in the 20th century.

Sinatra’s music, then, comes out of Holiday’s influence. He mastered the microphone too, and he talked about her influence on his rhythm too, his placement of syllables on and around the beat. And that’s just the tip of iceberg for that generation. Etta James (“At Last”) talked about Holiday every chance she got — about hearing her, emulating her, reaching for her essence. James was a big-voiced belter much of the time, seemingly the opposite of Holiday, but that’s the thing with Holiday: she didn’t just influence imitators — she touched whole generations.

Though his early singing bears the mark of Nat “King” Cole, Ray Charles music comes out of Holiday’s influence, too. He always admired her, her tone and her time, and got to perform with her at Carnegie Hall three months before her death. And if that doesn’t make sense to you, just check out one of Holiday’s sublime recordings of “Georgia on my Mind” (later to be a song virtually owned by Ray Charles), sides made early or late in her career, in which she gave the tune a treatment that even Charles was hard-pressed to equal.

Her bite and political bent was certainly a primary influence on the great Nina Simone. Before Simone became rightly acclaimed for work like “Mississippi Goddam”, she was listening to Holiday records, learning from them, including the master’s “Strange Fruit”, a bitter song about lynching.

Her sassy buzz is easy to hear in more modern singers too. Erykah Badu is often considered a neo-soul or hip hop Holiday, using her ancestor’s tart focus and conversational blues style. And Norah Jones plainly knows her Billie Holiday, finding power in understatement and carrying a red wine tone all the way to the top of the charts.

More baroque jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald (with her daring scat singing and melodic acrobatics) and Sarah Vaughan (with her velvet tone, her immense range, and her expressive melisma) may be bigger influences on some pop singers, particularly those big-voiced divas. But if you see how Holiday’s direct influence on Sinatra, Charles, James, and Simone extends out to the present, it’s hard not to call her the seminal influence on rock and soul singing.

But, of course, it’s jazz singers who are mainly marking her centennial.

Billie Holiday, Still Very Much Singing

Two major jazz singers are celebrating Holiday’s 100th with full albums of her music, both released this month on Blue Note. They take wildly different approaches, but both are fascinating, a bit daring, and very individual. And that, I suppose, is what most puts them in Holiday’s lineage.

Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth by Day

Cassandra Wilson, whose ’90s records Blue Light ’Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter made her possibly the most essential jazz singer since Holiday, has created a set of 11 songs associated with Lady Day and one original that closes the program. It’s an amazing and strange record, an exercise in atmosphere and arrangement, a tribute to Holiday that never makes the slightest concession to the way she would have sung or arranged these tunes.

Take “Billie’s Blues”, a classic twelve-bar blues that Holiday sang across her career. Wilson’s version comes in on a buzzing swirl of synthesized sound, Fender Rhodes electric piano, tribal drums, and moaning clarinet. Wilson’s voice is a dark fog coming in with the classic Holiday lyrics, blending with a slow funk that becomes more pronounced over time. Wilson is a contralto, and she sings with none of the bounce or lyrical lightness of Holiday. But wow does she understand Holiday’s aesthetic. She roughs up her tone at various times, and she never reaches for some big, showy note. She rides the pulse and makes it personal.

Just as Holiday became more stylized in her mature years, leaning more heavily on mood and the idiosyncrasies of her voice, Wilson (nearly 60) has made her quirkiest recording as a tribute to her idol. It’s a combination of longtime collaborators (Jon Cowherd on piano, Kevin Breit on guitar) and more surprising partners. The string arrangements are by rock quirkmeister Van Dyke Parks, and the overall production is by Nick Launay, who has recently worked with Arcade Fire, Nick Cave, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — and includes that band’s guitarist here. The rhythm section is brand new to Wilson: Thomas Wylder on drums and bassist Martin Casey (The Bad Seeds). And because this is that kind of session, throw in T Bone Burnett on guitar.

So, it’s only kind of a jazz record. There are a couple of semi-traditional tracks here, but barely. “Crazy He Calls Me” lopes along on a simple bass line and acoustic piano, but its essence is in the simple, scratchy blues guitar and an arrangement for a small string group. “I’ll Be Seeing You” gets a very atmospheric and dramatic arrangement, but it remains essentially a ballad underpinned by piano.

Mostly, though, Coming Forth is program of tracks highly produced in the studio, most of them approaching a moody but still large “wall of sound” concept. “All of Me” is quiet at first, but it develops into a minor-tinged groove (a strangely slowed-down bossa nova at times) built around a pulsing bass line, and eventually the arrangement has mixed in strings, what might be pedal steel (or just synthesizer?). It washes over you like a creeping flood.

Things get upbeat too, such as the (and I can’t believe I’m writing this about a new Wilson record) Philly-Soul tinged version of “You Go to My Head”. It starts with drums banging out a syncopation, followed quickly by a mass of strings setting up the melody, a twanging bit of guitar, and an electric bass playing what is nearly a full counter-melody. Not that it’s going to be a hit song, but this music has a swagger you can’t deny.

“These Foolish Things” also starts with drums, pulsing quietly but surely in triple time. This time, the mood is more contemplative, as Wilson intones the familiar melody over a few relatively simple chords. Even as the song shifts to its bridge, the harmonic movement is relatively static, and there’s a strangely stiff tenor saxophone line that couldn’t be less like Lester Young.

The problem with this transformation of “These Foolish Things” — and maybe with all of Coming Forth by Day — is the way that these tiny symphonies of sound seem mannered and overdone. I love that they are quirky, like Holiday was. But the best of Holiday was also light and deft even as she was keenly expressive. There was the magic of the trickster about Holiday: she was tragic and swinging at once, shot through with both play and pain.

As much as I love the gravity of Wilson’s voice and the moody grace of most of her records, this outing is weighed down by lugubrious tempos and pretentious arrangement. Almost every tune is pitched like the soundtrack to a David Lynch film, with weighty perversity. On “Strange Fruit” maybe this is to be expected, but even here the arrangement goes into an overwrought freakout that abandons all subtlety. It’s intense, to be sure. But intensely too much. The one original song, “Last Song (for Lester)”, closes the set on such a bummer note that it’s hard to remember that this collection is a celebration of a great and classic artist.

It has highlights, to be sure, but there isn’t one track that makes me feel giddy.

Jose James, Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday

Wilson’s labelmate, Jose James, has made an altogether better Holiday tribute, and one that should stand as one of the best recordings of 2015.

James is a jazz singer who has recently been recording very original and fleet soul albums for Blue Note. His approach to Holiday, produced by Blue Note label honcho Don Was, is utterly different from Wilson’s. The core of Yesterday is an acoustic jazz piano trio. Sonically, then, this sounds like a more “traditional” jazz tribute to Holiday.

But it’s not. Because the pianist at the top of the trio is Jason Moran, and he (along with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland) has transformed these songs harmonically and otherwise. The transformations, however, are sly and fresh, open and gut-pulling.

The simplest and possibly most wonderful thing on Yesterday is the decision to turn “Fine and Mellow” into a slow-shuffle blues with a gutbucket feeling. Patitucci anchors it all with a rubbery funk, and Moran indulges his gospel-tinged blues hunger. Yummmmm. As a singer, James never pushes too hard. He stays low in his range and low in the dynamic range too, so when he does dig in and shout or growl a bit, the impact is wrenching.

Most of the tunes are even more different, despite the minimal approach.

The chestnut “Body and Soul” has been (and has deserved to be) played to death. But what Moran does with the introduction here is a revelation, a reimagining of the famous harmonies that is beautiful but different, a masking of the usual Tin Pan Alley structure so that the tune sounds simpler and more direct but still allows for the complex melody to sit inside a lovely wrapping. When Harland and Patitucci enter on the bridge, it’s not in the usual “jazz ballad” style. Harland plays with brushes, but he uses a sharp syncopated attack on “one” and “three”, with stuttering echoes that have a rat-a-tat military sound. James goes delicate and lyrical against this backdrop, carving the melody with care and flexibility, but with no unnecessary filigree. The total effect is one of surprise: like you’re hearing a wholly new song emerging out of the classic you used to love but maybe lost interest in.

Similar reinventions grace “I Thought About You” and “Tenderly”, both sumptuous ballads. “Tenderly” show you how wonderful one of our 21st century trios can be when cast in a supporting role behind a great singer. “I Thought About You” is a duet between Moran and James, and it easily survives a comparison the the duets between Bill Evans and Tony Bennett. They are equal partners in perfect balance, with Moran’s distinctive voice as critical as that of the singer.

The record is not all hush and simmer, though. One tune cooks, and several get down and dirty.

“What a Little Moonlight Can Do” takes off from the start in a rushing, uptempo swing that lets the trio show off its incredible flexibility. Moran barely plays the melody — he hints at it, fragments it, cranes his pianistic neck at it, sort of. More than two minutes in, James finally climbs aboard the tune as it slices through water. But James is singing it, essentially, at half-time, letting the band slide all around him as he casuals it, chill as can be, the contrast between the trio’s busy (even nervous) approach and James’s ease making the whole thing delicious as can be.

“Lover Man”, like “Fine and Mellow”, works from a funky ostinato bass line and a blues/gospel piano part. Harland gives is a hint of 12/8 as he skips in a grooving way behind Moran’s descending two-chord vamp. Even greasier is Holiday’s most famous hit, “God Bless the Child”. James and the trio also ingeniously reharmonize this classic, with Moran on Rhodes electric piano. The first section of melody gets a bluesy groove in 6/8-tinged backbeat but without the usual pronounced chord change on “so the Bible says”. Moran voices his chords and Patitucci chooses bass notes such that the tune sounds more like a slippery, impressionistic veil of the blues.

When Moran solos, it’s just a cool set of pentatonic licks over a two-chord vamp, with tension building on every bar as Harland prods and pushes them into the bridge. There, James rushes in with his gospel tone, crying out high and smokey and like a male Holiday who’s been let loose at last. It’s just wonderful. It’s the kind of thing Wilson would have done at an earlier time in her career before her manners had taken over quite so much.

Like Wilson, James tackles “Strange Fruit”, Holiday’s most haunting, difficult song. It’s the only song he does without the trio, and it closes the record. It’s just James: overdubbed and harmonized humming as an underpinning, a pair of handclaps on the “4” of every measure, an eloquent lead vocal that finds a melody quite a bit different than Holiday’s, and gospel replies in the background. It is a stark and mournful elegy, but one that lifts you too — it reminds how singular Holiday was as a jazz singer, how she was kind of alone for all her admirers and for all the influence she had.

She was still the one and only Holiday, recognizable after one note, inimitable even if everyone wished they could ape her. They couldn’t.

And in that way she was the very best jazz teacher and influence — the artist who demonstrates a few key concepts and then encourages her pupils to discover themselves within the tradition, with history at their back.

Wilson, who takes a huge, overladen swing at the fences with her new recording, has built on Holiday’s legacy many times in the past. James, the next generation coming up, does Holidayeven more proud in 2015. His tribute should stand as one of the best jazz collections of the year, and it reminds us again that the music still soars.

But of course, when you’re starting from the heights of Billie Holiday, you’re already halfway to the heavens.