Sunday, 28 August 2011

Musing on Billie Holiday... and Bananas.

I once had a falling out over Lady Day. Yes, it was late at night. Yes, whisky sampling had been taking place - how clever of you to guess.
My friend was being a pretentious jazz snob (the worst kind of music snob, so sayeth the shoegazer) belittling her later work. Okay, she lost a lot of her range to booze and drugs, but an expansive range was never her big thing. I think the later fragility adds a poignancy to her music. People are at their most interesting a study when they're less than perfect. You can marvel the sublime, but half its glory lies in being able to bare witness in the face of the moment's brevity. Beauty doesn't remain fixed, all skill fails; the passage time takes its toll (especially bananas). We all have failings and lord knows we acquire more (or better disguises); ultimately Elvis was no less great because he got fat.
Okay, some stuff to know about Billie Holiday, though I'm sure you all do....
Billie Holiday is the perfect accompaniment to heavy rain and introspective writing. She was born Elenanora Fagan back in 1915, died an old, old young in '59. Jazz purists are apt to talk about her phrasing and pioneering vocal style - she liked to emulate the band, particularly the cornet. Music historians cite her tragic upbringing, though in her autobiography she made light of it...
"Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three'.
Her mother sold her into prostitution age 13, the men she loved treated her badly, but all that was nothing. She was raped as a child by her neighbor: she was arrested as she lay dying. If she'd be around today there's no doubt the only thing you'd know her for would be her prodigious heroin addiction.
Holiday co-wrote only couple of songs, but they've become standards - including "Don't Explain" posted down below. As I mentioned above, she shot her voice through booze and drugs, but the fragility became her. She sang for crying hearts, and broken spirits; for those who've been wronged and those who didn't/couldn't help themselves. Injustice and pain is universal, but that music can only ever be hers.
Her final album, Lady in Satin was recorded with Ray Ellis and his orchestra a year before her death. In the liner notes wrote of her...
"I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of "I'm a Fool to Want You." There were tears in her eyes ... After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn't until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was."
If I had to listen to only one record for the rest of my life, it would one of Billie's. Here are some of my personal favorites:

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