By Dick Fregulia
When asked to review the new Billie Holiday documentary “Billie, ” my first concern was whether it would play as a Hollywood melodrama or as a true musical testimony to the jazz vocalist legend. My preference was for the latter, but the film actually achieves an impressive balance between the gritty details of her life and the beauty of her singing.
The film starts with ambulance sirens, a dark shot of the Capitol in Washington DC, a whisper of Billie on the soundtrack, and a quick title that explains, “In the early hours of February 6th, 1978, the body of a young journalist was discovered on a street in Washington D.C. “
“Her name was Linda Lipnack Kuehl. For the past decade she had dedicated her life to uncovering the true story of…”
Did I get the wrong channel?
Saved by the next cut, Billie appears on screen performing “Now Baby or Never” live with the Count Basie Band. Director James Erskine was cloaking Billie’s story with that of the journalist-teacher whose unfinished biography of Billie sparked the motivation for the film.
Much of Billie’s story is told with great insight by musicians that were a part of her life, including bandleaders Count Basie and Artie Shaw, singers Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms, Billy Eckstine, Jimmy Rushing, drummer Jo Jones, pianists Bobby Tucker and Jimmy Rowles, and manager John Hammond. At other times Kuehl’s voice carries the narration, and periodically the film switches to Kuehl’s sister weaving in the story of her sister’s own life. For most of the hour and a half, though, the film stays on track with Billie’s voice in the foreground and a clear, cinematically stimulating narrative of her life.
Illuminating comments run throughout the film. Sylvia Syms recalls that Billie once explained the trick to performing was, “if you almost laugh, the audience will laugh. If you almost cry, the audience will cry.” Jimmy Rowles, her pianist for a period of time, connected to her well-documented sex life with the comment, “she sings from her crotch.” Billie herself, when asked about what first drew her to jazz, explained, “I always wanted to sing like Louis Armstrong played. I always wanted to sing like an instrument.”
The background of Billie’s story runs from the early 1930s to the late 1950s, roughly paralleling the swing era as it moved towards bebop. The film also chronicles the racism encountered by musicians through the midcentury history of jazz. One of the most poignant scenes of the movie is the treatment of Billie singing Strange Fruit.
The pace of Erskine’s direction is particularly comfortable, matching the lyricism and relaxed swing of Billie’s singing. We move through performance footage at Harlem clubs, the Apollo Theater, and Carnegie Hall, interspersed with documentary footage of her problems with prostitution, alcohol, drugs, jail time, and relationships with abusive men. Much of it is tumultuous and disturbing, but the ambiance is always distinctly jazz.
Billie died in 1959, and Kuehl started her research in 1971 but died in 1978, leaving the book uncompleted. The movie ends with the speculation by her sister that Linda’s death was not suicide at all, the implication being that she had flirted too closely with the seediest events of Billie’s life. Linda had also complained about being threatened while gathering information for the book.
The film ends appropriately and intriguingly with Billie singing Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” at her final live performance in London on March 18, 1959. Her voice was beautifully expressive and she looked better than she had for years. But she was not well. She died of heart failure four months later.
The film left me with an even greater appreciation for Billie’s singing. There was plenty of story, wonderful images, great encounters, and relevant issues, but I remember best the sound of her voice, the expressions in her face, and her interactions with the musicians. I could watch it again several times.
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 KimRead jazz singer and scholar Kim Nalley’s review of Billie,
Enjoy our special Billie Holiday Gallery of photos, posters, record covers, surprises and film clips with lots of great music.
Dick Fregulia has been playing jazz piano gigs in the San Francisco area for half a century, as a soloist, sideman, accompanist to jazz vocalists, and leader of his own jazz combos. For 35 years he was featured Thursday nights at Washington Square Bar and Grill in San Francisco’s North Beach. His early influences were Ahmad Jamal, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson, leading to a lifelong admiration for Bill Evans as a trio pianist and Art Tatum as a solo pianist. In recent years he has focused on expanding opportunities to perform with his piano trio and his Good Vibes Quintet/Quartet/Trio.
As a “jazz recording artist” Dick created Blue Koala Records in 1978 with the highly acclaimed solo piano LP, Sunday Morning at Washington Square. He has since produced more than 20 recording projects, both as a soloist and in various combinations with vocalists and different groups of musicians. His newest two trio releases feature Bill Moody on drums and Steve Webber on bass. Sail Away presents the music of Tom Harrell played by the Fregulia Trio, while jazzitalia, features compositions by Italian jazz artists. Previous CDs include Re: Person I Knew (trio tribute to Bill Evans), Art For Sale (the Dick Fregulia Trio), I’ll String Along With You (the Dick Fregulia Stringalong Trio with Brandon Robinson on guitar), “Live at Kuumbwa” (the Good Vibes Quintet), and “That’s Amore” (trio arrangements of 13 songs by Harry Warren).
Dick’s website has music, a blog, how to buy his albums and more.
The Dick Fregulia Trio and his Good Vibes Trio/Quartet/Quintet appear in San Francisco at Pier 23, Cafe Claude, and the Cliff House, while Dick performs as a soloist at Marin Joe’s in Corte Madera and with bassist Steve Webber at the Sand Dollar in Stinson Beach—when places are open again.
He performs virtually every Wednesday 5-6 pm as “Dick Fregulia’s Jazz Piano Bar” on Facebook. Past sessions are there too.
Here are a few excerpts from these sessions.
And older concerts are here.
Listen to an excerpt from his Bill Evans Tribute LP, Re: Person I Know.
“San Francisco’s Greatest Jazz Piano Player” (overheard as said by San Francisco restaurateur Sam DuVall in a parador restaurant in Santianna del Mar, Spain from an adjacent table, circa 1991).