In the feature-length documentary about Billie Holiday (The Hour of the Wolf – NTR) appears halfway through a photo of the main character along with Ella Fitzgerald. Both in full regalia with jewellery, and also at their best. Queens of Jazz. Ella The First Lady of Song, Billie to Lady Day renamed by tenor saxophonist Lester Young. (Billie was actually called Eleonora Fagan, her mother’s surname; father Clarence Holiday, musician and big drinker, sixteen years old when Eleonora was born, hardly appears in her biography, except as namesake). With the photo we hear a tape on which an interviewer asks what the difference between the singers is. The answer from pianist Bobby Tucker: ‘When Ella sings: ‘My husband is gone’, you think he has gone to buy a loaf of bread; but with Lady you see him walking down the street with his things, and then you know: he will never come back’. Don’t shoot that other pianist (this writer) if Ella is sacred to you (which there are plenty of legitimate reasons for), but there’s something touching about that characterization.
The same Tucker (who accompanied her in 1947 at the concert in Carnegie Hall, shortly after a year in prison annex addiction clinic – in addition to jazz love there was a lot of sensationalism in that sold-out hall) also says that Billie did not consider herself a very good singer. But, he says, ‘she was very good at telling a story’. He was right, as can often be seen in the film. And then there’s that incomparable, gritty voice, the unique timing, the swing, the truthfulness, the lived experience. And that from someone without significant musical training. From someone who wanted to sing like a brass player and not for nothing, besides Bessie Smith, saw Louis Armstrong as an inspiration. (The images of a relatively young Louis, standing in front of his band, introducing a very young Billie and accompanying her vocals with pleasurable arm gestures, are delightful.) And everything still seems so fresh. seems, because her biography has been cloudy as hell from an early age.
Persistence, yes. This increased over the years, as did the drinking and drug use, the complex, multifaceted sex life and the number of predominantly toxic relationships that brought mountains of misery, after which some men walked out of the street not only with ‘their own things’, but with that from her. The many women are not known to rob her. In terms of men, it started with rape when she was twelve, after which a pimp appeared, followed by managers, often lovers at the same time, who exploited her just as hard. The last in line, from 1954, also husband, Louis McKay, took the cake. It was yet another abusive relationship – he would skip her across the street when she asked for some of her money: she kept falling for completely wrong types (not counting the few nice musicians in between; a childhood friend: ‘Men who really liked her thought she nothing’) and the term masochism is used in several testimonies. In the end, she decided to divorce Louis. She had the papers in, but before she signed she died. In the hospital, gagged, because opiates would have been found again. Strange Fruit had made her an extra-loved object of FBI attention, centered on drug use, from the first run. Story of her life. And death† All her possessions (she loved fur coats, jewelry, Cadillacs) fell to the man who was actually an ex (“he has a white girlfriend now,” she said) and she, as a really well-paid soloist, had $750 left – according to other sources, even less. See the impressive statues at her funeral with crowds. It’s a bizarre contrast.
I’m no jazz connoisseur, and the much music in the film illustrates the biography more than the main subject, but say ‘Billie Holiday’ and you think Strange Fruit (Hanging From The Poplar Trees)† That song, in one of its many renditions, is entirely in the movie and it cuts to the bone. Determined not only by the horror photo illustrations of a lynching in the Deep South. Voice, diction, music, text (a poem, in the film attributed to Lewis Allan, pseudonym for the communist teacher Abel Meeropol after seeing such photos) and the restrained and therefore extra effective recitation – they add up. When she sang it, the lights dimmed, the service in the club stopped, and everything went black on the last line. Those weren’t theatrical effects – that was bloody seriousness. Lynching was the most extreme form of discrimination that Billie herself and everyone of color (most of her initial audience) faced (and has) faced in the US. While touring the South, it was hard to find lodging; and the boys could piss in the bushes, but she was not allowed to use the toilet at the gas station. They are surface examples of a complex that lay deep under water like an iceberg. Billie was one of the millions of victims of that, just as she was extra as a girl and woman. But victimhood does not make sacred. And can promote criminality. Billie herself, still in Baltimore, at the age of fourteen, had girls solicited for her and therefore feared the Last Judgment. That part of the public at Strange Fruit ostentatiously left the New York nightclub (“we come to have a good time”) is typical: the leavers were white.
What is curious about this richly illustrated biography is that it is a frame story. The frame around the painting is the story of Linda Lipnack Kuehl, journalist, who, obsessed with Billie who had died in 1959 at the age of 44, worked on her biography in the 1970s. And who before that, armed with recorder, spoke to countless witnesses – from childhood friends and pimp to jazz greats, including Tony Bennett, Artie Shaw, Billy Eckstine and Charles Mingus. So she was the journalist who made Bobby Tucker make the comparison with Ella Fitzgerald. And who herself got into a relationship with Count Basie through her project. Despite ten years of preparation, the book never came because in 1978 she was found dead at a hotel in Washington, the city where Basie performed. Suicide, according to police. Murder, according to the family, whose sister Myra tells the biography of Linda, illustrated with family films. The documentary is inconclusive, although it would indeed be stiff if Linda had first put on her nighttime face mask and then jumped out the window. But the police file has been destroyed, so…? It is clear that Linda has uncovered a lot of bad practices around Billie, and that many will not have been happy with that. Her many interviews form the substantive core of this documentary by James Erskine, which is intended as an ode to Billie and to Linda.
Linda was aware that as a white woman she was treading on thin ice in a predominantly black world. Sensitivities come up in many conversations. Sometimes smiling, sometimes angry. That Paul Whiteman King of Jazz is mentioned, and Benny Goodman king of swing, “it’s to make you laugh.” Bitter laugh. All the impresarios, all the reviewers were white, while 7/8 of the musicians were black. Tom Jones himself says he owes his style to Otis Reading, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry. Where is our compensation?’ ‘Why are black toppers always called black star and not starry? Peggy Lee is never called Slavic; Streisand never Jewish.’ “Why is her love for cars and jewelry being imitated and not white women?” The formidable drummer Jo Jones, anchor of the rhythm section on Count Basie, says the men around Billie—white manager John Hammond, black co-workers—knew nothing about her except how to make money off her. That she was darkened to be more one Black Mama to be. That she left the band because she didn’t just want to sing the blues. And especially that Linda, the interviewer, has no idea what black musicians in general and touring in particular experienced: hell. Though Jewish, Linda must have known a great deal about discrimination, her position was different from that of the musicians she surveyed.
It is a sad story in almost every way. But also a sharp insight into the life and fate of black America; and in the music industry. And, again and again astonishingly the conclusion that tragedy can yield so much beauty.
James Erskine, The outspoken voice of Billie Holiday, NTR The Hour of the Wolf, Wednesday 6 April, NPO 2, 22.28 hrs. Based on audio interviews by Linda Lipnack Kuehl