Box Set, 5 CD/Vinyl
My late college thesis adviser used to write on jazz for venues like The Atlantic, and one of the first things he told me was that there were two jazz artists, in two periods of their careers, that I should avoid, lest my exposure to those timeframes diminish my appreciation for their other work.
The lesser of the two transgressors was Charlie Parker during his strings phase. It was as if a molten blues bebop player had been plucked and deposited far from his natural setting, like an alligator that had been lowered into the ocean. My adviser was right.
Then there was late period Billie Holiday. “She should have stopped singing,” my adviser informed me. “I don’t know why she would have carried on. Her voice was gone. It was very sad.” This was spoken by a man who was actually around as an adult in the late 1950s, when Holiday made those final recordings prior to her death at only 44 years old in the summer of 1959, her liver and her heart having failed her—her heart, perhaps, in ways beyond the strictly physical.
It was not rebellion that led me to late-period Holiday, but more a desire to understand what motivated this wonderment of sound to keep going if her art had truly reached a nadir. I had heard the early sides first, with a special concentration on Holiday’s 1940s prime. She didn’t sing with the ease of Ella Fitzgerald, who made the process of owning a tune seem simpler than drawing one’s next breath. You could walk through the very notes that came from Fitzgerald’s mouth as if you were passing through a sheer, nearly transparent curtain. There was greater density in what Holiday was doing; with her vocals you passed down a river, but it could be a viscous one with soft waves of honey rolling up on the banks.
In today’s age, Holiday is often martyrized, used as an all-purpose symbol for black suffering. What this often means is that liberal white college women put up a Holiday poster on their dorm room walls, aspiring to some residual cultural cachet that they are “woke” because they know who this musician is and think they should like her music.
What they don’t do, mostly, is actually listen to Holiday’s music, save for those few songs that crop up in the background of the latest Netflix series, the ones where the writers have switched to autopilot and tapped Holiday in their cause to convey grave emotional meaning. For when you hear Billie Holiday, you always feel something emotionally significant—something emotionally crucial—is at hand, even if you can’t put your finger on what it is. You can look away, but you can’t listen away. You must ride with her; you have no choice.
Holiday, naturally, wouldn’t be able to stand such people, who are, in their way, every bit as patronizing as some of the members of upper-class society who thought “Strange Fruit” was a song about a bad crop in the arbor. You may be able to fix stupid, to a degree, but it’s awfully tough to give a shallow person depth, because whoever or whatever made them that way didn’t provide for added concavity. You need added concavity with Holiday’s later music. And if you have it, you will likely get more from what she did closer to the end than anything nearer the beginning or the middle.
Our world right now is very much about poses. Most people strike them constantly, and their pose, or their latest series of poses, becomes their stand-in for a natural unforced identity. Not only is maintaining a pose exhausting, but ultimately our once-strong impulses to connect, to move forward, shut down. We become perpetually stalled in our respective journeys, as though a tumbler of glue had been poured down the ignition keyhole. We hear but we don’t listen, we look but we don’t see, and we talk but we rarely say anything. We chirp, repeat, echo, while we are given pats on the back from people who do the same. It feels less scary to share an overcrowded boat than to row against the current in one alone.
That’s why late-period Billie Holiday is more vital than ever, and that is, in part, why a new box set called Classic Lady Day keeps calling me back for more. The nickname was one that her great partner in symbiosis, Lester Young, provided for her; she dubbed him Prez in sweet reprise. She was the singer with the worn voice that nonetheless imparted worlds, he was the tenor who didn’t muster the raw power so in vogue at the time, but who communicated levels of meaning that the heaviest of all blowers, with all the winds of the world in his lungs, couldn’t muster. Others thought them ramshackle. They knew better. They were jazz royalty—quite simply, the best.
I liked that the word “Classic” has been stuck on the front of the title for this set. Perhaps it means that the later recordings are starting to come up in the world. The box set contains four albums from 1956—Solitude, Recital, Velvet Mood, and Lady Sings the Blues—with a topper from 1958 in All or Nothing at All.
I turned to these six albums not long after receiving my adviser’s warnings, my curiosity having overcome me. Was Holiday really that bad?
There may be no two more famous Holiday recordings than “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.” The versions we normally hear are from much earlier than this period, when Holiday’s voice possessed a fecundity that made you think it could never age. Lady Sings the Blues contains revisitations of these classics. Neither, in any form, requires an extended vocal range. What they best get by on is how much nuance a singer can wring from the lyrics, their voice partnering with the backing music, never becoming subsumed by it, so that everything feels monadic, focused and forceful, but in a manner that caresses, too. A caress in a singer’s voice always compels.
Right from my first hearing, I thought these late career versions worked as well qualitatively, but I liked them more; in part, because they risked more. They courted vulnerability, the possibility of failure was not a deterrent. If anything, both sound like Holiday going off on a mission, to continue owning something that some people, no doubt, thought she had lost. This is the sound of not caring about those people, though, of course, one always wishes to have backers. Combined, the two songs represent, to my ears, a prayer to the jazz-singing self, something sacrosanct. The way Holiday sings this version of “Strange Fruit,” she might as well be implying a double meaning, that it is her legacy that others would tragically have hanging from the poplar trees like the bodies of the those representing this horrible, horrible Southern “crop.” But no dice—we are dealing with the knife that cuts the rope before the rope can spirit away life.
How many listening experiences do we have in our life that change how we think sound can be made? One? Six? I’m not sure of the median number, but these albums signified one for me. The voice retained honeyed aspects, but now that once viscous, but still open-flowing river, was charged with effluvia. I say “charged” because there is something more emotionally electric in Holiday’s voice.
“How Deep Is the Ocean” from Recital epitomizes the level of art we’re talking about here. Holiday’s voice skims across the top surface of the beat, bobbing alongside a muted trumpet like some exotic fish come up to spend time with a passing gull. But it is the palpable emotion in the physicality of the voice, the Cartesian push-pull of mind and body that situates us in a kind of jazz Hadopelagic Zone—the very deepest of the deep, the darkest and most relaxed of trenches.
Great artists have an ability to be in multiple artistic places at once. They can entertain and enthuse us, just as they serve up sobering truths like a hotel barkeeper in hell. What I like about Holiday is that she—or the character she portrayed in her songs—wasn’t shy about her pain. This is as anti-pose as can be, and with the absence of a pose comes a form of liberation that is boundless. The people in that aforementioned boat must stick to one shipping lane; you, in your skiff, may row wherever you wish, in the direction that brings you the most meaning.
Holiday kept singing because her gifts had never lessened—they had just entered into a different stage of their maturation. Here is one of the great secrets of great singing: The actual quality of your voice—what comes out as pure sound when you open your mouth and sing some notes—really doesn’t mean much. This isn’t to say that great singing is about how much emotion you have, which is a line of comfort that people without technique in various art worlds like to tell themselves. The violinist without actual chops repeats a mantra that she plays with sublime feeling and channels her soul, and so forth, and it’s all nonsensical self-delusion.
Listen to Holiday on “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me” on All or Nothing at All. A syllable is a note, but in the way she sings the titular words of what is a directive, she essentially splits each single note/syllable into shimmering, shaking little component parts. Each block of sound—the note—becomes tendril-like. The directive remains in tact, but now it has been shaded to have a plea-like quality. The singer wants love on terms she deserves, but that desire is also an invocation of trust—as if to say, please rejoin my good faith and chose to love me like I have chosen to love you.
Anyone can have a nice voice. Some have a fine voice that projects. But great singing is so much more than that. With the very best singers, the standalone physical quality of their voice is almost irrelevant. When you listen to them sing you do not hear a song; you hear their soul riding the radiant mist of the song. That is how transcendent they are in their vocal artistry. That is also life artistry, for it is life and its mysteries, and its challenges, pains and bounties, that are distilled in a voice such as the one Billie Holiday had throughout her career, no less so near the end of her career.
As for that drink in hell, the one that sobers you with the truth—there is never anything to say after you have had your elixir, provided that it is the proper elixir, that it is one like this. Once the truth is finally out, for the last time, the soul can rest. That is, I think, the real story of Billie Holiday, but you have to follow it all the way to the end to know how the story turns out.