Billie Holiday was probably the only jazz personage of the time whose story was so close to Charlie Parker's, a gent she succeeded in age by only a decade, dying at 44, but there's a crucial difference in her story, one that Carmen MacRae makes evident: she was a complete natural and not so much a musician and artist but exactly what she was. Holiday constantly sang as a young child and discovered speakeasies at the tender age of 12, crooning there to make money.
At 18, Albert Hammond discovered her and thus started a legend, but slowly at first: almost no one paid attention to Holiday's first record. Taking her cue from Louis Armstrong, though, it wasn't long before Lady Day took hold and began to impress people. A big bonus on this DVD is the inclusion of snippets of Ruby Dee reading Billie's alleged own words about herself and her art. Catching that first person slant has impact. Tucked in around are MacRae, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Mal Waldron, and others, reminiscing and analyzing.
Like the rest of the DVDs in this series, Lady Day follows the Holiday chronology, constantly featuring that high fragile voice which could nonetheless gain power and authority, especially in songs like Swing It, Brother, Swing with the Basie Band, where she gained her sobriquet, one Lester "Prez" Young actually gave her mother, not her, as has been otherwise said. Carmen MacRae ribaldly asserts the contrary, saying Holiday appropriated it for herself, recognizing a good stage tag when she heard it.
Unlike the Parker DVD, Lady Day is a good deal more upbeat. Holiday lived a very unusual wide-ranging life, from brothels to tour buses with the band, playing craps and rapping all night with the boys in the band. Joining up with Artie Shaw exposed her to white audiences, which proved to be the true launching point popularity-wise…though she nonetheless encountered no end of bigotry from authorities and businessmen, forcing her to abandon the ensemble. Still, she continued to sell, and singers studied her work extensively. Billy became one of the highest paid black performers in the country.
Lady Day severely downplays the drug aspect of Holiday's life, the problems with relationships as well, centering on her role as one of the two founders of jazz singing, Louis Armstrong the other. Nonetheless, her problems with heroin and alcohol inevitably come up, as they must, and the marking point of her descent becomes evident, quickly passed over until the last quarter of the documentary. Regardless, this entry in the Masters of American Music is an excellent hour-long tour of the times, the star, and the story, the best yet produced (it won a 1994 ACE award), planting the seed of desire to see and hear more.
Oh, and the kicker of the entire affair seems to be the fact that Lady Sings the Blues is the culprit for whatever distortions have occurred, a biography by muckraker William Dufty—oddly enough also the author of the excellent Sugar Blues, a classic that slammed the sugar industry and was profoundly affective on diet change in America. Dufty quite evidently exaggerated generously in order to sensationalize matters and boost sales.
Need I emphasize the irony of yet another white guy profiting off black talent in a business world whose actions towards them has historically been nothing unless than criminal?
For the rest of the series, see the reviews for Charlie Parker (here), Thelonius Monk (here), and the overview The Story of Jaz* (here). More are on the way next year: Coltrane, Basie, Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughn.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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