Friday Night Jazz: Billie Holiday

All_or_nothing_at_allBy now, you should have some feel for my taste in music, and the wide ranging and eclectic flavors that live on my iPod. But unless you are a fool or a wizened old pro, any attempt at doing a Friday Night Jazz on Billie Holiday is likely to fall flat on its face.

Lucky for us, Nat Hentoff — formerly the Music critic of the Village Voice, and now the Jazz columnist  of the WSJ is just such an old pro. In this week’s WSJ, he looked at a few new reissues of Lady Day’s music:

"Billie must have come from another world," said Roy
Eldridge, often heard accompanying her on trumpet, "because nobody had
the effect on people she had. I’ve seen her make them cry and make them
happy." Lady Day, as tenor saxophonist Lester Young named Billie
Holiday, still has that effect through the many reissues of her
recordings, including the recently released "Lady Day: The Master Takes
and Singles" of the 1933-44 sessions (Columbia/Legacy, available on
Amazon) that established her in the jazz pantheon.

Rare_live_recordings_19341959I grew up listening to those sides, which infectiously
demonstrated — as pianist Bobby Tucker, her longtime pianist, noted —
that "she could swing the hardest in any tempo, even if it was like a
dirge . . . wherever it was, she could float on top of it." But none of
the previous reissues, as imperishable as they are, have as intense a
presence of Lady as in the truly historic new five-disc set "Billie Holiday: Rare Live Recordings, 1934-1959" on Bernard Stollman’s ESP-Disk label.

This is a model for future retrospectives of classic
jazz artists of any era because researcher and compiler Michael
Anderson, in his extensive liner notes, provides a timeline of her jazz
life — describing the circumstances of each performance in the context
of her evolving career. One example: a live radio remote from Harlem’s
Savoy Ballroom in 1937 when the 22-year-old singer "began a special
association with her comrade, ‘The Prez,’ Lester Young" — grooving
with the Count Basie band in "Swing Brother Swing."

Complete_billie_holiday_on_columbiaHow could I possibly hope to improve on that?


For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Lady Day, a great place  is NPR Billie Holiday: ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ special. There’s a 54 minute radio broadcast discussing her history and music.

As far as albums go, there are lots of choices, but they pretty much come down to a) Boxed Sets; 2) Early work; 3) Later years.

If you want to start with something basic, go for A Musical Romance –  agreat duet with Holiday and her long time friend and msucial collaborator, Lester Young. You can also go to the 2 disc All or Nothing at All. The 2 CD Complete Decca Recordings is also quite good.

Complete_billie_holiday_on_verve_19For the more ambitious, the boxed sets are the way to go:

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)

The Complete Billie Holiday On Verve, 1945-1959   

The set Hentoff refers to above is the 5 disc set  Rare Live Recordings, 1934-1959   

Students of her latter work will be interested in:

Lady in Satin 

Lady in Autumn




Videos after the jump . . . 





Fine and Mellow


Lady Sings the Blues

Lover Man

Strange Fruit

Fine and Mellow

The Blues Are Brewin’


Billie Holiday, Live: A Biography in Music
WSJ, February 12, 2008; Page D7

Billie Holiday Discography

Billie Holiday wikipedia


Official Billie Holiday Website

American Masters PBS

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. howard commented on Feb 15

    there’s really only one thing that our host missed: hentoff makes reference in his writeup to the 1957 “sound of jazz” television show that he co-produced (and the wonderful version of “fine and mellow” and possibly the most elegant blues chorus ever by lester young). for those who have never seen it, it’s a wonderful introduction to jazz in general, with many fantastic performances and excellent camera work:

  2. howard commented on Feb 15

    actually, i guess i should say wonderful introduction to “classic jazz.”

  3. snotsdale commented on Feb 15

    i’m confused – nat, the far left civil rights crusader guy, writing for wsj?? the paper with the editorial stance ‘orphans: a delicious, renewable energy source?’
    did he become a libertarian or sumpin, or just need cash that badly?

  4. cathompson commented on Feb 15

    i enjoy br’s friday music notes, and I’m pretty familiar with American Music of the last century. For the ever living ecletic end try a taste of Bill Frisells Have a Little Faith for a bit of antic fun. When you start to talk about Lady Day the ante goes up. You can find a guitar player by rolling a nickel down by the middle of the street. Everybody knows that. When you find a committed artist that the audience cant take their eyes off you’re ascending the pantheon.

  5. maxmo commented on Feb 16

    Excellent post Barry! Thanks for the NPR link..I did not know about it. I just downloaded the program.


  6. howard commented on Feb 16

    snotsdale, hentoff is actually a complex case: he’s a first ammendment absolutist, but he’s also an anti-abortion absolutist; he has left-liberal tendencies but he also has right libertarian tendencies.

    but putting that aside, you need to distinguish between the oped page of the wall street journal – populated with hacks, propagandists, and charlatans – and the arts coverage of the journal, which, while generally aesthetically conservative nonetheless isn’t obnoxious (and distinguish both from the news and financial analysis, which are, of course, superior).

  7. Daria commented on Feb 26

    Why isn’t there a timeline here if it says that this page provides a timeline of Billie Holiday? A timeline should definetly be addad to this page!

  8. Daria commented on Feb 26

    Add a timeline!
    I really need it for my homework.

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