In her prime, photographers could usually make her look beautiful even without the gardenia in her hair. Sometimes, at certain photo sessions, they could even make her look like a powerfully sensuous and voluptuous knockout. Look at other photos taken at the same session, though, and you immediately see a harder and tougher presence; you'll be able to see glints of the self-destruction and debauchery that eventually brought her to such majestic ruin.
What those later photographs could never capture was innocence. Look at very early pictures and, incredibly, it was there. Listen to her very first recordings and you can hear it, too.
Her voice was never beautiful or even close. It was thin and reedy and, even in full freshness of youth, no stranger to notes hit with a fleeting, almost bird-like squawk. In her final years, heard on the huge Verve anthology "The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1944-1959," her voice, like everything else about her, became a wreck of itself. It only increased the drama of her final years which became a public tragedy all but unique in jazz. Everyone who knew her and heard her during that time knew that they were hearing and seeing mortality not only writ large but hurried along by a hopelessly errant life.
For all that, what is unquestioned is that she is one of the three greatest of all jazz singers (the other two being Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.) As ravishingly beautiful as Ella's voice was in her prime, Armstrong established, early on, that something else entirely besides beauty of sound was going on in jazz singing.
The music on the monumental 10-disc "Lady Day" is from 1933 to 1944. It is the first major Billie, the one that jazz first fell for, the one that remains a legend whenever people talk about the supreme artists of jazz song. This is the Billie Holiday who, despite her vocal equipment, early on bent notes regularly, filled her music with horn-like glissandos, re-wrote melodies as she sang them and showed other singers of jazz -- and all American vernacular music -- how it's done.
These were the years when the greatest of all singer/musician relationships in jazz was forged on record as Holiday and tenor saxophonist Lester Young so often melded two voices into one musical mind. Sometimes he would play obbligatos to her singing; sometimes he would solo before or after her. And when they were at their peak, the phrasing of one became the phrasing of the other.
It was Young who, in his glorious, much-imitated personal dialect of English, first called her "Lady Day." (He called everyone, male or female, Lady. With Holiday, he collaborated with the language gods on one of the loveliest and greatest of all American nicknames.) No small part of the beauty of the nickname was its artfully ironic relationship to one of the most nocturnal of all American lives. If there was ever a life that was lived away from the sun, it was Holiday's.
She is the subject of countless literary attentions, not to mention the godforsaken travesty of a movie biography starring Diana Ross and supposedly based on her autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues." One of the best was by Elizabeth Hardwick in her brilliant 1979 memoir/novel "Sleepless Nights."
She was, says Hardwick adoringly, a "bizarre deity."
She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat. She seemed for this moment that never again returned to be almost a matron, someone real and sensible who carried money to the bank, signed papers, had curtains made to match, dresses hung, and shoes in pairs, gold and silver, black and white, ready. What a strange betraying apparition that was, madness, because never was any woman less a wife or mother, less attached; not even a daughter could she easily appear to be. Little called to mind the pitiful sweetness of a young girl. No, she was glittering, somber and solitary, although, of course, never alone, never . . .
The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume -- and in her voice the tropical l's and r's. Her presence, her singing created a large swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the soul of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian.
Hardwick goes on to say that those who followed her in 1943 "have little splinters of memory that seem to have been personal. At times, they have remembered an exchange of some sort. And, of course, the lascivious gardenias, worn like a large, white, beautiful ear, the hearty laugh, the marvelous teeth, and the splendid head, archaic, as if washed up from the Aegean."
"And yet," says Hardwick, "the heart always drew back from the power of her will and its engagement with disaster." She had, says Hardwick, "a genuine nihilism . . . Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style . . . Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life. Her own people, those around her, feared her. And perhaps even she was often ashamed of the heavy weight of her own spirit . . ."
"The sheer enormity of her vices" took a toll, says Hardwick, who followed her from place to place. "Out of the heaviest addiction to heroin, she piled up the rocks of her tomb with a prodigiousness of scotch and brandy. She was never at any hour of the day or night free of these consumptions, never except when she was asleep."
Even before the end, her world took on a destructive cast "as it so often does with the great gifted who are doomed to repeat endlessly their own heights of inspiration."
For all Hardwick's florid, romanticized excess, few have ever written so well of any jazz figure. There is nothing wrong with Gary Giddins' essay in "Lady Day." It's a beautiful, leather-bound package, too, the size of an album of 78 rpm records.
It begins in November 1933 with Benny Goodman, when she was just 18 years old. It ends with an all-star band in 1944, just a couple of months shy of her 29th birthday. She only had 15 more years to live after that. (She was only 44 when she died but you'd guess at least 10 years older from pictures taken at the end.) Producer John Hammond "discovered" her and told everyone he knew in jazz about her, which was, at the time, most everyone worth knowing.
In a short while, she even had a hit with Teddy Wilson's orchestra, a silly song called "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" that has a shot at immortality only because Billie Holiday sang it. Before these 10 discs -- and 11 years -- of her life are up, she turned jazz singing upside down, making truly remarkable records with Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington and Count Basie and a long parade of the greatest sidemen and jazz figures of the era.
She wasn't quite yet "doomed to repeat endlessly" her "heights of inspiration" so all the alternate versions and airchecks sound fresh and, sometimes, startlingly free compared to what the world originally heard. And yet the specter of repetition ended this, her Golden period.
Hammond wouldn't let her record her single greatest work, "Strange Fruit." For that, she had to go over to little Commadore Records to record the most haunting and chilling piece of vocal jazz in the music's history. What you hear on the 10 discs of "Lady Day" is the magical first act of one of the most searing biographical dramas in the history of American music, presented about as well and as beautifully as it is possible to do it.
Nor is it alone among the sterling jazz boxed sets of this season. Some others:
John Coltrane: Live Trane, The European Tours (Pablo, 7-discs). If they'd lived, this would have been the 75th birthday year of both John Coltrane and his one-time employer Miles Davis. Coltrane was barely 40 when he died of liver cancer in 1967. Between 1961 and 1963, his "classic quartet" made three tours of Europe for jazz impresario and producer Norman Granz. The music from those tours is preserved on this hugely important but unavoidably monotonous and troubling seven-disc set.
Not only are the same tunes played over and over but, despite the enormous differences, the improvisational strategies remain remarkably similar. "My Favorite Things," his 1960 "hit," is heard six times, "Impressions" is heard four, as are "Mr. P.C." and "Naima." The pleasures of hearing these tunes develop differently are immense for the devout but they are, to put it mildly, not for Coltrane beginners who are all well-advised to start with a great and canny recent two-disc anthology of Coltrane's next period called "The Very Best of John Coltrane" (Impulse).
The treasures on "Live Trane" are the first two discs from 1961 which include, with the quartet, Coltrane's closest co-revolutionary, Eric Dolphy, who would settle in Europe and die in circumstances of eternal mystery and tragedy.
It's hard not to think of Hardwick's "doomed to repeat endlessly their heights of inspiration" when listening to "Live Trane." There is great music in it, to be sure. But there is also, quite clearly, a terrible artistic predicament that will soon need to be solved. Rating:
Among major jazz figures there is no more controversial music than "Late Coltrane" i.e. the free, demonically questing music John Coltrane made in the years before his death. The final live recording of his life is "Olatunji: The Last Live Recordings" (Impulse) and, despite the primitive recorded sound, it is, at moments, truly terrifying in its violence. If you remember, in fact, that Coltrane knew he was dying of liver cancer and that he had gotten himself into the powerful artistic bind of "Live Trane" just a few years before, you can understand far better, in these tracks from April 1967, why he and Pharaoh Sanders almost seem to be blowing the music apart (not to mention their horns). Rating:
Miles Davis: The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Columbia/Legacy 3-discs). The question that has to be asked quietly of "Live Trane" has to be doubled and redoubled and shouted angrily from the rooftops about "The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions": Would Miles Davis have approved, even at his weakest moment, of their release?
History, of course, always overrides artistic standards (dead artists have no right of final cut), but still the phenomenal music of this particular period of Davis' studio career depended on its being completely exploratory (and free, therefore, to be terrible) with the most careful subsequent critical judgment called into play about the records that should represent him.
No harsher critic of music, including his own, than Davis ever resided in jazz. There's no question in my mind that if he listened to the tentative studio explorations included here as "The Ghetto Walk" and "Early Minor," he'd be apoplectic about their release, if not downright pugilistic. (During this period, he boxed in his spare time. This was also his "Jack Johnson" period.)
Again, the great discs here are those that originally carried Miles' approval -- "Filles de Kilamanjaro," "In a Silent Way." This set is for the most resolute Milesians, not for novices. For them, it's not only fascinating but it's exceptionally well-packaged which explains, no doubt, why its final release was so long delayed. Rating:
Sonny Stitt: The Complete Roost Studio Sessions (Mosaic, Nine discs, by mail only from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place., Stamford, Conn., 06902). Was there ever a more competitive jazz musician than Sonny Stitt? It's hard to blame him. How can a man not be savagely competitive if his entire professional life was spent being told how stylistically beholden he was to a pivotal jazz genius? In Stitt's case, the genius was Charlie Parker, from whom Stitt seems to have taken so much, while continuing to develop on his own completely parallel track. So fed up was Stitt with comparisons to Parker that he took up the tenor -- and became one of the towering bebop tenors -- because at least there no one could say "he sounds just like Bird."
In one of the most prolific recording lifetimes in jazz history, the bebop giant made records by the ton, often with the intention of cutting session mates to ribbons. These better-behaved long-unavailable beauties for Roost were recorded between 1952 and 1965 and go all over the map, from organ/tenor up-from-the-chickenshack wailing with Don Patterson to juicy mid-'50s Quincy Jones and Johnny Richards arrangements to 1963 Latin sessions with a very young Chick Corea on piano.
Pride of place, though, is reserved for the quartets, with the likes of pianists Hank Jones, Jimmy Jones (no relation but Duke Ellington's favorite piano sit-in when Billy Strayhorn wasn't around) and Harold Mabern and drummers such as Charlie Persip and Roy Haynes. Fifteen of them are appearing for the first time anywhere.
Even when the electric current of his invention was relatively low, Stitt was one of the pillars of bebop, a paragon of fluidity and grace. When the voltage was turned up, he was tremendous. The trick, with Stitt, was to surround him with high-grade peers which is usually the case all through these 148 tracks.
LADY DAY: THE COMPLETE BILLIE HOLIDAY ON COLUMBIA 1933-44
10-disc set of some of the most importatnt of all jazz vocal music.
Rating: 4 stars out of 4