Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth

Author:  John Szwed
Genre:  Biography

Hardcover; (Kindle, Audible)
ISBN #:  9780670014729
240 Pages
$21.11 Amazon; ($11.99; $20.95)
March 31, 2015
Four Stars

When Billie Holiday stepped into Columbia's studios in November 1933, it marked the beginning of what is arguably the most remarkable and influential career in twentieth-century popular music.  her voice weathered countless shifts in public tastes, and new reincarnations of her continue to arrive, most recently in the singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele.

Most of the writing on Holiday has focused on the tragic details of her life-her prostitution at the age of fourteen, her heroin addiction and alcoholism, her series of abusive relationships-or tried to correct hte many fabrications of her autobiography.  But now, Billie Holiday stays close to the music, to her performance style, and to the self she created and put into print, on record and on stage.

Drawing on a vast amount of new material that has surfaced in the last decade, critically acclaimed jazz writer John Szwed considers how her life inflected her art, her influences, her uncanny voice and rhythmic genius, a number of her signature songs, and her legacy.    

I first heard of Billie Holiday years ago, reading a rumor about her song Gloomy Sunday.  Then, listening to the song itself, I was hooked, and wanted to know more about this woman, who led such a sad and storied life.

John Szwed has written a comprehensive biography, but it is also not a biography per se:  While there is plenty of information about Lady Day, a great part of it is background about jazz/blues, the people who played it, loved it, wrote it.  We don't get a lot of information about Billie's early life growing up, but we do get the essentials.  We understand she is tough and meticulous, but most of the information we see is in regard to her performances; what she did and didn't do, the people she knew, the other performers' reactions to her.  While that may seem enough, it left me wanting somewhat more.

However, I knew going in, as they say, that this would be no ordinary biography on Billie Holiday.  I knew it would center on her voice, her performances, her songs, her influences - and I learned all this and how she created what she did.  How she had an uncanny ability to listen to the music and make it her own; how she knew exactly what to do and let the musicians follow her; how she needed no rehearsals to create what she created.

For these facts alone, it is worth reading the book.  What I already knew about her and what I learned meld nicely together, creating a package of the woman and her music that lives on in her voice.  Recommended.

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