There were three phases in Billie Holiday’s career that were so distinct as to give the impression that we were listening to different singers. The first was the carefree swinging Billie who recorded some 120 sides on equal terms with some of the best soloists and improvisers of the 1930, using a natural and relaxed sense of swing. The “second Billie” emerged after she recorded the protest song Strange Fruit, a deeply depressing song of lynching and death sung with much feeling and emotion. This event immediately altered the course of her career by 180 degrees. She now became a dramatic, serious singer and cut her most famous recordings of heavy, non-swinging material like Gloomy Sunday, God Bless the Child, Am I Blue, I Cover the Waterfront and I got a Right to Sing the Blues. These songs were sung with profound artistry and are considered by many to be her best work, but their value as Jazz is diminished since they were performed with musicians who served only as background accompanists. Finally, in the last sad years of her life in the 1950’s Lady Day’s voice lacked the glow and intonation of former. She sang in a rough, dark style but all the while maintaining her artistry.
Begging forgiveness from Billie, who would have felt I was renaming her “Lady Yesterday”, the “first” Lady Day of the 1930’s, when Swing and Billie were both young, is by far the most important in terms of Jazz history. In 1935 the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. During the previous five years the Jazz recording industry was reduced to only five percent of its 1927 peak. New Orleans/Chicago style was no longer in favor and all the public wanted was to waltz to sweet music. A few Jazz leaders like Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman were trying to make a go of Big Band Swing but things were not going well.
Against this dismal background, John Hammond, the aristocrat who backed up his conviction of the value of Jazz with his own hard cash during the difficult 1930’s, and who was the discoverer of Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Count Basie and Lester Young as well as friend and advisor to Benny Goodman, came to the rescue. In July, 1935 he organized the first “sing-swing” session during which Lady Day sang with a group that included Teddy Wilson as leader, and sidemen Benny Goodman (using the name Shoeless John Jackson for contractual reasons), Ben Webster and Roy Eldridge. This and subsequent sessions over a four year period, all organized by John Hammond, helped preserve the small combo tradition in Jazz at a time when the Big Band was starting to dominate the scene. (For parallel events in this period see my article on Big Band Jazz on this site). Billie’s accompaniment reads like a Swing Hall of Fame and included a various times, in addition to those mentioned above, Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Chu Berry, Harry Carney, Buster Bailey, Benny Morton, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Cozy Cole, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa and many others.
No other singer could have hoped to attract this caliber of collaborators over a long period of time, so obviously there must be much more to Billie’s style than is at first apparent to the casual listener. The key to understanding her work lies not in thinking of her as a singer but rather as an instrumentalist. What instrument? I would say the tenor sax. Billie’s style in the 1930’s was linear and rhythmically much looser than the Blues from which she sprang*. Her attack was definite but smooth and almost free of vibrato as she glided across the phrases and apart from the beat “like a cloud floating above a landscape” as James Lincoln Collier stated it. She would totally recompose most of the songs that she sang and would sometimes reduce entire phrases to one or two notes, letting rhythm and intonation provide the tension. By introducing these devises she managed to transform the substandard material that was provided her in this period, forgettable songs like What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Miss Brown to You, I wished on the Moon, This Year’s Kisses, If You Were Mine, Sun Showers, He Ain’t Got Rhythm, Foolin’ Myself, and Why Was I Born into timeless Jazz masterpieces.
Interestingly, Lester Young’s tenor sax style shared precisely these same characteristics. In Lester’s own words, “I play swing tenor, that lag-along style where you relax instead of hitting everything on the nose.” When Lady Day and the Pres, short for the President (they gave each other those great names), first recorded together in January 1937 and many times subsequently, it is hard to tell when Lester’s solo ends and Billie’s vocal begins, so intertwined are their styles. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that Billie, “only” the vocalist, developed her style as a result of influence from this giant instrumentalist. The facts do not bear this out, however. Billie, who derived her early inspiration from Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, employed these musical techniques as early as 1933 in a record of Riffin’ the Scotch years before Young appeared on the national Jazz scene. Indeed, Holiday had already recorded thirty sides, including some of her finest works, long before Lester Young put his first solo on wax in October, 1936.
Does this mean that Billie’s singing influenced Lester Young through her recordings? Probably not to a large extent. Ear witness accounts of Lester’s playing in the mid 1930’s indicate that his style was already well developed and he had bested the great Coleman Hawkins in a well-attended Jazz battle in Kansas City in 1933. It would appear that Lady Day and The Pres had the same Muse and arrived at their relaxed, linear style independently. Still, Lester Young, who always sought a singing quality in his playing, was quoted as saying “Most of the time I spend listening to music is listening to singers.” Billie’s influence on the next generation of singers (including Sinarta) is legendary but her probable affect on many instrumentalists and on the modernization of Jazz cannot be denied.
* Billie Holiday was billed as “The Lady Who Sings the Blues” but she only recorded one song in the pure Blues form, Fine and Mellow. She first recorded it for Commodore Records in 1939 and many times thereafter.