You never heard singing so slow, so lazy, with such a drawl,” the Apollo Theatre’s Ralph Cooper said of Billie Holiday at the start of her career. ”It ain’t the blues. I don’t know what it is, but you got to hear her.”
In this handsomely illustrated, book-length essay on her life and art, Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday , Robert O’Meally follows Cooper’s advice. He hears Lady Day, and he makes you hear her too. ”Her voice,” he writes, ”was small but multicolored, earthy in one instance and cool and refined in another bubbly and sparkling with good humor or husky and dark.” Her sure sense of rhythm let her linger just behind the beat or drive a song forward; her diction turned the words themselves into rhythms. And then there was her remarkable ability to toy with the meaning of the words, making her ”a subtle destroyer and then rebuilder of her songs’ lyrics.” Because her style was so stripped-down and concentrated, sometimes rendering an entire piece in just half a dozen pitches, every nuance of timbre and rhythm and irony seemed to explode. She was the jazz singer as minimalist poet, O’Meally says — and even if you don’t agree that she was ”the greatest jazz singer in history,” you have to respect the way he has argued her case.
O’Meally’s emphasis on the art of Billie Holiday is all the more welcome since her life story, as traditionally recounted, has been the stuff of purplish myth. Revered as the martyr of multiple victimizations (abused woman, African-American, junkie, drunk) as much as she is admired for her music, Holiday has been seen by critics and audiences alike as a ”natural” singer rather than as someone who had to practice to refine her art. It’s as if you could take any representative stomped-on heroine out of an Alice Walker novel, put her in front of a microphone, and automatically get the sound of genius. To correct the picture, O’Meally, making liberal use of research by Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a Holiday scholar who died before finishing her book, rewrites Holiday’s biography to emphasize her musical training.
Not that he prettifies her life. If anything, his research shows that Lady Sings the Blues, the days-of-dope-and-drama memoir that Holiday concocted in 1956 with reporter William Dufty, toned down her life considerably, even in its wonderfully punchy opening lines: ”Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.” The truth is, Holiday’s father was younger than her mother and didn’t hang around for any wedding. What Clarence Holiday did accomplish for his daughter, as O’Meally emphasizes, was to give her a sense of rhythm. He was the guitarist in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, a leading band of the 1920s, and played a significant role in Billie’s musical apprenticeship. To take another example, Dufty has Holiday scrubbing steps in Baltimore as a teenager to make a few dollars. Not true — but she did turn tricks at a Baltimore dockside joint. Here again, O’Meally is enough of a student of jazz and its history to put the wild times into perspective. Of her apprenticeship in good-time joints, he writes, ”In these intimate places, where artistic standards were high and the give- and-take between musician and musician and between musician and dancer and audience was expected and indeed required,” Holiday flourished.
Sometimes eloquent and witty, sometimes rapt before its subject, Lady Day combines dedicated research with enlightened enthusiasm. It’s a fan’s notes, with brains and judgment. A-