“No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music. If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” – Billie Holiday
Today would have been the 98th birthday of Billie Holiday, so I can’t think of a better person to feature.
“Lady Day,” as she was called, had one of the most distinctive and different voices in the music world. Once you’ve heard her sing, you’ll never forget the haunting, emotional delivery. She was a true original. She was also a trailblazer in the world of racial and gender equality, as she fiercely held on to her rights as a songwriter, musician and human. She wouldn’t let anybody push her around, and helped set the stage for the truly independent musician.
She also had her demons, which ultimately led to hear death at the age of 44 — way too early. But those demons fueled her creativity to an astonishing degree. Some people put her down for her lack of precision as a vocalist, but to my ears, whatever she lacked in precision she made up for in raw emotion. I’d much rather hear a singer pour her whole heart and soul into a song than worry about being perfect. That’s what jazz is about, really — individual expression, and that’s what Lady brought to every note she sang.
Today’s song is a tough one as far as the subject matter is concerned. It’s called “Strange Fruit,” and it’s about the lynching of African Americans that was still happening in America in 1939, when Holiday first started singing the song. It was so controversial, in fact, that her record label, Columbia Records, refused to let her record it, and gave her a one-session release from her contract so she could record it with Commodore Records. The song went on to sell more than a million copies and become Commodore’s biggest selling record. I’m sure Columbia regretted their decision!
I’m going to give you two different recordings of the song, both by Holiday, to show you how her voice and style changed over the years. This first one is the original, from 1939:
This next one is a live version from the ’50s, shortly before she passed away. I find this both harder to listen to and even more emotionally charged than the first version. Her voice wasn’t as good as it had been, but the look on her face and the intensity of the performance bring me to tears.
Today would also have been the birthday of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, whom we’ll talk about tomorrow.
Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as “the next generation of Seattle jazz.” Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com.