Say Lady Day and the picture that comes to mind is one of distinctive grace; of elegant gowns, that wistful, all-knowing gaze, those cafe au lait features, that ever-present gardenia perched elegantly to one side of her head. The sound delivers potent lyrics, recognizing the vagaries, disappointments, and exhilaration’s of love found, love lost; or perhaps it is the sound of the deeply biting social commentary of the chillingly metaphoric “Strange Fruit”. For some the mind may drift to Lady Day in autumn, the ravages of hard living lending a rasp to the voice, dulling the edge somewhat but the message still standing in bold relief despite the obvious ruins wrought by sins of dissipation. Billie Holiday is the most enduring voice of jazz song. Her influence is nearly complete -- from Frank Sinatra to Cassandra Wilson -- even now, over 30 years since she ascended to ancestry.
Saloon singer par excellence her career began to blossom in Harlem nightclubs. Her recorded debut occurred not with her uptown brethren, but alongside Benny Goodman, followed by extensive stints with Goodman’s piano man Teddy Wilson and his orchestra. It was in Wilson’s employ that Holiday first encountered her instrumental alter ego, tenor man Lester Young, who bestowed the title Lady Day on Billie. Later big band work included Count Basie and Artie Shaw. She debuted “Strange Fruit,” whose racial politics at first eluded her, in 1939 at Cafe Society, itself ironically a monument established in the name of racial tolerance.
Billie Holiday’s voice is a thing of singular charms that once heard is truly ineffaceable, compelling all who come within earshot. She derived much early sustenance from the example of Louis Armstrong’s powerful vocal style and phrasing, evolving that into such a deeply personal way with a song as to elicit great wells of emotion in her audience.
Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit.