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Excerpt from Billie Holiday feature

Tuesday 11/8/22

They both have their places and their common ground, but there can be a universe of difference between a fact and a truth, which itself is a truth that Billie Holiday understood as well as any American artist.


A fact typically has a numerical quality. “Billie Holiday recorded ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939,” for example. A truth deals in the blazing world of fierce light beyond numbers. “Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ will sear one’s insides as one partakes of it, so that the listener will never be the same again,” for instance.


How could we begin to assign a factual unit of measurement to such an experience? We can’t, and we know this, at least on some level.


Singers sing for all kinds of reasons: to wow us with their chops, to make a buck, for a love of music, as a primary mode of self-expression, or a fine farrago thereof, but when we listen to Billie Holiday, we’re cognizant of a driving principle that transcends all others, and it’s why we feel a measure of gratitude when we hear her music.


Billie Holiday sang with a two-fold goal: truth and connection. Her interest was on the person who would be hearing her words and how that person would receive them, and what those sounds in turn impelled in that person. She’s invested in us. What she can do for us with her art. She sings to us, for us. Her vocal entreaties are not matters of “mere” altruism, but rather human to human expressions of grace, put in motion so that we might become more than we were, whatever that entails.


If you listen to Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday back to back to back, most people would likely say that Lady Day would be taking home the bronze in terms of technical prowess. Yet she’s the singer we respond the most to, so often the cherished favorite to those who know and experience her work, and that’s because she connects with us as few ever have, and maybe no one else in the whole of jazz. Or that is what I believe, because it’s what I’ve experienced, and that experience feels a lot like truth.


She’s also one of our best interpreters because she interprets us as much as she does any standard or blues. Holiday was not one to be bogged down in anything that kept her from the most direct route to who we are. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, written with William Duffy and published in 1956, three years prior to Holiday’s death in 1959 at age forty-four, is one of the most profound documents of unalloyed human experience I’ve ever witnessed.


I choose that phrase because Lady Sings the Blues is more than a book one reads; to pass through its pages is to have a life experience. The voice envelopes us, and as we read the chest seems to be on fire. She’s not rehashing her past, or providing chronology, so much as she’s powering to answers behind mysteries. What does one do when one has suffered in the extreme? How is hope sourced from tragedy? If I hurt so much today, how will I be stronger tomorrow? Why does music gives us so much joy?


We could say that she’s playing her own life, as if it were an instrument, a trumpet, which is what her singing voice often resembled. “Facts” are notes put in place as suggestions, not rules, the same way Louis Armstrong might have brought a head chart to a recording session, but when it came time for Pops to solo, Pops would go where Pops best deemed fit.


Consider this well-meant advice to find yourself a copy of Lady Sings the Blues and read it if you haven’t already, or read it again if you have, because it’s a document that always gives us more, which is why the best art, in part, is the best art. Drop a penny into the well, and you never hear it hit the bottom.