By Kim Nalley
Billie Holiday. Her name is eponymous with the phrase “jazz singer.” There is no jazz figure so well-known, yet shrouded in mystery, as Lady Day. Many important details of her life and her musical genius have been overshadowed by a lurid interest in her love life and drug use. Recently some articles based on faulty interviews emphasize her persecution in Hoover’s war on drugs without realizing this was a fact of life for all African American jazz musicians. I do not see the same attention given to Miles Davis’s or Charlie Parker’s drug use or their abusive relationships. Davis’s and Parker’s “women” are not given a megaphone to comment on them, and I never have seen their musical genius attributed to drug use. I sometimes see the hardships of being a Black man highlighted but I do not see the same courtesy given to Miss Holiday.
Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 17, 1915, in Philadelphia, but she was raised in the Pigtown slum of Baltimore, Maryland. She was raped at age 10 and sent to a reform school as a result. Afterwards she ran errands at a whorehouse where she heard Bessie Smith records which Holiday claimed to be a seminal influence along with Louis Armstrong. Her mother Sadie transported her to New York City to be a prostitute at age 13. Holiday was promptly arrested and did time in Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt); she lied about her age to make sure she did not end up in juvenile until she was the age of majority. When she was released from jail at age 14, she left prostitution for good and set her sights on singing for a living. She changed her last name to Holiday to capitalize on her father’s connection as a guitarist with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, one of the most respected Black Big Bands of its day. The scene in Harlem was dense with famous clubs, famous musicians and a seemingly endless supply of white patrons eager to slum and see African American entertainment. Despite her early hardships, Billie Holiday pioneered the refinement of microphone technique, minimalism, and jazz phrasing for subsequent generations. By singing and recording the anti-lynching protest song “Strange Fruit” Holiday became a race woman and outspoken proponent of civil rights 15 years before Brown v. Board and almost 20 years before the March on Washington. Holiday’s career spanned 30 years. She recorded from her teens until her untimely death in 1959 at age 44.
The documentary Billie, now showing, does not start at Billie’s birth or death, but rather the date of Linda Kuehl’s death. Kuehl was and still is, posthumously, THE preeminent biographer of Billie Holiday, despite never having completed Holiday’s biography before she died in 1978. Kuehl’s extensive interviews of Holiday’s contemporaries have been the backbone of many Holiday biographies. For those who wish to delve more deeply into her interviews, the Julia Blackburn book With Billie is a collection of Kuehl’s transcriptions. Oral history is only as good as the interviewer and Kuehl, a very attractive white woman, put her interviewees at ease by interviewing them most often in bars where they worked and turning off the microphone when asked. Keuhl is also remarkable for not trying to angle the information in a Procrustean manner to fit her argument. Kuehl’s only objective was to understand Holiday better, which she does better than any other biographer of Billie Holiday. Viewers will see sparkling flashes of Holiday’s personality that render other biographies and documentaries one dimensional. This documentary offers viewers the rare opportunity to see Billie Holiday through the eyes of those who knew her best.
Kuehl is remarkable for interviewing lesser known people who had a lot of contact with Lady Day. As a woman, Kuehl seems to instinctively know that Holiday’s last husband, Louis McKay (Holiday filed for divorce but it was not completed before she died), who owned the rights to Billie’s estate after her death was an unreliable hustler who was prone to say anything to interviewers as long as he was paid for the interview. Instead we hear the voices of personal friends and colleagues who often played with Holiday, such as Count Basie and Artie Shaw. It seems amazing that most writers have speculated on the reason Billie Holiday left both the Basie Band and the Shaw Band without getting the testimony of Basie and Shaw themselves. Linda delivers due diligence and interviews all the people involved to come up with an answer, or answers, that are closer to the truth than any other biographer.
Kuehl conducted over 150 interviews in the early 1970s, less than two decades after Holiday’s death in 1959, so the memories of Holiday are still fresh and free from today’s prejudices. Although it may seem counterintuitive to have more audio only interviews for a film documentary instead of videos, we quickly hear the ease and genuineness in the interviewee’s voices. Having a camera in one’s face automatically creates artifice or at least a self-consciousness that is less present in an audio-only interview, especially one conducted after one’s concert, over a drink.
This is not to say that there is no filmed footage. The film opens with footage of Holiday that I had not seen before. Crisp colorized film footage of Holiday with the Count Basie Orchestra from 1950 shows us why she was called “the greatest jazz singer ever” during her life and now over 100 years after her birth. Billie stands in magnificent glory in a dark long-sleeved dress with a portrait collar that shows off her face. That face! So many people have rhapsodized about her voice that we often forget that for those who saw her sing live her face was also a powerful vehicle of emotion. Watching the footage of her face singing with no sound could reduce the watcher to tears alone without hearing a single note. Holiday’s eyes plead, her lips sneer and her single eyebrow rises suggestively and reproachfully. Her face is an actress as much as her voice. Her body as usual is still as a statue; only her hands wave occasionally in small restrained circles. Her stillness is fantastic for the camera.
As much as Holiday was the first master of microphone singing, she is also a master of the camera. The images of her are legion. Holiday’s light brown skin contrasts dramatically with her dark dresses, and smooth-straightened glossy dark hair and the white gardenias (or lily or orchid.) Her make-up is minimal. Lipstick and brow pencil are the hallmark features. There are so many photos in circulation of Holiday at the end of her life when she was skeletal it might be shocking for some to realize that for most of her life she was plump. The film highlights a review that scathingly derides Billie for being heavy reminding us that “draconian female” standards of beauty have been around for a long time. Holiday can only be fairly described as oscillating from pleasingly plump to svelte for much of her career.
Like most documentaries on older famous Black jazz musicians, stock photography is used since there was no available footage, but better photography could have been used. There are great archival photos of East Baltimore and of the reform school and the jail she was sent to. Particularly jarring is a small girl made up to look as if she was Billie as a child. The girl looks absolutely nothing like Holiday. I would expect that at least they could have found a child with the same coloring as Holiday. The testimonies of those who knew Holiday before she became famous help make up for that deficiency. They are particularly pertinent, showing what kind of child she was and what the neighborhood was like for poor African Americans. You can hear Kuehl’s excellence as an interviewer asking “why” repeatedly rather than inserting her own understanding. At times the interviews use words that grate on modern ears. The description of Holiday as “fast” would no longer be an appropriate description of a prepubescent girl who had been raped at age 10 and sent to reform school because of it. Calling Holiday a “chick singer” is an understatement, but it is relevant that we understand how the world saw Holiday during her time and how she saw herself. Some of the best moments of the documentary are hearing Billie talk about herself in her slight drawl infused with vocal fry. Holiday corrects an interviewer saying that she was fourteen when she arrived in New York. She tells us of her hopes and dreams in her own voice.
The director James Erskine does a great job inserting commentary during relevant moments. During the famous 1957 Sound of Jazz television recording of “Fine & Mellow” others have described Holiday’s face as smacked out on drugs or liquor; instead, this film makes it clear that the ecstasy on Holiday’s face is from hearing the sounds of her musical soulmate saxophonist Lester Young play. She had not performed with nor seen him in years and her delight is plain. Holiday is clearly listening to, engaging with, and nodding her approval and at times stony apathy for the licks the instrumentalists take during their solos. To describe it any other way is to diminish her musicianship.
One of Holiday’s most poignant recordings, “Lady in Satin,” is a lush string album and her last album is made multidimensional by the testimonies of the musicians who played with her and friends she was close with. Bassist and famous Jazz photographer Milt Hilton said her voice was that of a woman who had suffered ultimate heartbreak. Memry Midgett, an Oakland pianist who played with Holiday in the 1950s and remained close with her, said Holiday confided that she was worried about the sins of her youth and God’s forgiveness.
Detractors from the film will likely say there is too much emphasis on Linda Kuehl. Considering the documentary is made almost exclusively of one person’s previously unheard interviews, I cannot agree. How Kuehl managed to construct Billie’s life and Kuehl’s life is just as interesting as Holiday’s life in my opinion. It is similar to how the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is as much about Mark Bittner as the parrots. As an historian who has used Linda Kuehl’s interviews to write several papers and presentations on Billie Holiday I realize that I am biased and others might not share in my joy in learning more about Kuehl.
Missing from this documentary is incisive exploration about exactly what makes Billie Holiday so great musically. The years with Teddy Wilson that brought her to fame are barely discussed. That Holiday took the bottom of the barrel Tin Pan Alley tunes that no one wanted to record and made them works of art is never covered. A side by side comparison of a pop singer singing a Billie Holiday tune compared to Billie’s version would have illuminated exactly why Holiday is a genius musically. Holiday deserves a multi-hour Ken Burns treatment on just her life. Her career of 30 years has no breaks, stops or retreats into obscurity. She sang and recorded till the end of her life. Like all documentaries there is never enough music and with a woman such as Billie who lived an expansive life in 44 years it would be impossible for one feature length film to cover everything.
A more pertinent flaw would be the ending montage which shows images of current racism against African Americans over Drummer Papa Jo Jones’ voice. Racism is still an enduring feature of Black life in America, but it does pull the viewer out of Holiday’s time too much. The conditions for African Americans were much more dismal than many people realize and Holiday’s struggles stand on their own. Jo Jones says bitterly and vehemently, Holiday was persecuted less for the song “Strange Fruit” or drugs and more for being an uppity Negress who “lived large” wearing furs, diamonds, driving a Cadillac and spending money freely. According to Ida B. Wells, African Americans were most often lynched because they were financially successful or not deferential enough. Billie certainly encompassed both requirements. She was high profile, successful, and the opposite of small. The most important takeaway from Jo Jones is that anyone who believes music has no color negates the experiences of African American musicians who lived with racism dictating almost every aspect of their lives. In Holiday’s case we could also add being female to that equation as well. Hopefully someday a filmmaker will be able to tackle the intersectionality of Holiday being both Black and a woman when neither had many rights, and Holiday as a jazz genius when singers were considered neither musicians nor geniuses.
Billie is playing in selected cinemas and various streaming services. To find your favorite venue check here.
The Official Billie Holiday website maintained by the Estate of Billie Holiday and hosted by Concord Jazz. It is maintained is rich with photos, videos, book information, quotes, and, of course, music.Plan to spend some time there.
Read jazz pianist Richard Fregulia’s review of Billie.
Enjoy our special Billie Holiday Gallery of photos, posters, record covers, surprises and film clips with lots of great music.
Kim Nalley, a PHD Candidate in History at University of California Berkeley, is a historian, playwright, and actress and is most known as jazz & blues singer with a powerful, 3 1/2 octave range that can go from operatic to gritty blues on a dime, projection that can whisper a ballad yet is capable of filling a room with no microphone, and the ability to scat blistering solos without ever losing the crowd’s interest or the intense swing. She has also been seen playing folk guitar, singing R&B and spirituals as well as being an avid Lindy Hop and blues dancer.
She was discovered by Michael Tilson Thomas while singing to packed audiences live with no amplification at San Francisco’s Alta Plaza. MTT invited her to sing a program of Gershwin with the San Francisco Symphony and she subsequently became a Rounder Records recording artist and went on a worldwide tour gracing concert halls from Moscow to Lincoln Center and festivals from Umbria Jazz to Monterey Jazz garnering effusive international press and many awards.
Kim Nalley is on faculty at the California Jazz Conservatory and is writing her Doctoral dissertation on the “Globalization of Jazz and Black Cultural Politics.”
Nalley’s many philanthropic endeavors include founding the Kim Nalley Black Youth Jazz Scholarship at the California Jazz Conservatory.
Yoshi Kato wrote in Metro “with a flowing tone, an articulate delivery and a formidable understanding of musical principles and history, Nalley is comfortable in many a vocal setting.” She is the former owner of the San Francisco jazz club Jazz at Pearl’s and was awarded “Most Influential African American in the Bay Area.”
Nalley combines music and history in her award-winning Tributes to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and “Black Broadway.” Her play “Ella: the American Dream” premiered in 2008 and can be viewed on Eat My Shorts. She created “Freedom’s Song: Music of the Civil Rights Movement” and was musical director and curator for the Martin Luther King Institute’s Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Her scholarly papers on Billie Holiday include:
“Two Gardenias for Civil Rights: Robin Carson’s photo of Billie Holiday” (read it here)
“This Bitter Earth: Infertility for Billie, Ella and Sarah”
Presentations and performance on Billie Holiday include:
“Rethinking Billie Holiday on her Centennial” (Google Talk)
“Blues Legacies and Black Feminism with Angela Davis “(SFJAZZ)