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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.

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.

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