BILLIE HOLIDAY / “Lady Day Verve Years Mixtape”
Last week we considered Lady during her stint at Decca where the label hoped to turn her into a popular music star during the last half of the forties. In the fifties she moved on to Verve Records, which was a straight ahead jazz label. There were two releases on Columbia and one on MGM shortly before she died, however the major portion of her fifties recordings were on Verve and they are stunning.
The last two on Columbia, Lady In Satin and The Sound Of Jazz are considered essential classics; essential for anyone seriously interested in jazz vocals and classics because they are among the best recorded examples of jazz vocals. You can probably guess that somewhere—and hopefully—soon BoL is going to feature the last recordings.
The decade of the fifties was both kind and cruel for Billie. She died in 1959 in a hospital. She was arrested for drug possession literally on her death bed with armed cops standing sentinel during the final days of her illness.
Lady Day's musical soul-mate was Lester Young, aka Prez (short for President which is what Lady Day dubbed Lester, and he in turn gave her the honorific title Lady Day). Prez died March 15, 1959, shortly before she did on July 17, 1959. Although musically inseparable from their brilliant collaborations in the forties, they were not in constant contact during the fifties. How crazy is it that time and circumstance separates people who work so well together? How well is “so well”? Listen, watch the 1957 Sound Of Jazz video; every question will be definitively answered as Billie visually responds to one of the most celebrated tenor (tender) saxophone solos ever recorded. Lester audibly exhales, Billie visually inhales, we all hold our breath in awed suspension.
When her voice was barely more than a wheezed whisper, she was finally accorded the opportunity to record with strings and sympathetic orchestration the way she wanted. She defied all professional expectations and produced a masterpiece, Lady In Satin. That was her last studio album.
As rich as her contributions to musical culture were, she died July 17, 1959 with less than a dollar in her bank account (although legend has it that she had a little over $700 in cash pinned to her clothing). Where the careers of other singers might be compared to producing a fine wine, some years delivering a vintage brew, Billie Holiday’s life consisted of moonshine during the early years working with less than quality music and cognac in her latter years when she distilled all the past pains and pleasures into musical concoctions so potent they are best appreciated in sips.
Late Billie Holiday will knock you out.
And here a detour for what some might consider a blasphemy, i.e. questioning the supremacy of Lady and Prez working together. Billie’s collaboration with tenor saxophonist Lester Young are considered the ultimate example of simpatico mating of instrumental obbligato in support of vocal performance. Proof of both their passion and potency is found in the 1957 television program The Sound Of Jazz during the performance of “Fine And Mellow.” (This performance will be discussed in more detail at another time.)
The “Fine And Mellow” superlative not withstanding, for me her small combo work on Verve with Ben Webster on tenor saxophone is the finest expression of fifties jazz vocals that exist. Period.
Because of his pugnacious nature, Ben Webster was sometimes nicknamed “the brute,” but when it came to playing ballads he was not only sublime, he was amazingly tender. What paradox: the boxer who could caress a note with subtle finesse.
Perhaps it was the breathy way Ben articulated notes, some of which were as much air as actual sound. The hush of Ben’s breath mated and matched the patina of Billie’s voice, a sound more than a few have described as painful (or was it pain filled?).
While comparisons with Prez are inevitable, I choose to think of this as evidence that Billie’s singing brought out not only the best in the musicians who accompanied her, Billie also enticed them to reveal intimate vulnerabilities and personal tendernesses that would otherwise be cloistered away from mundane witness.
Think of the physical and emotional nakedness we share with lovers, a nakedness that other eyes almost never see. That is how the music of Billie and favored accompanists was. Billie and Ben, like Billie and Prez, made love in public. They allowed us to listen to their intimacy.
Perhaps, what is so beautiful about this music is the authenticity of breath—these musicians are breathing beings blessing us with fully honest expressions of life lessons. The essence of everything they’ve ever experienced is succinctly presented in these recorded performances.
One other important aspect that is often under appreciated is recording technology. By the fifties, the LP is established. Recordings are no longer limited to approximately three minutes in length, which means that Billie can sing the complete ballads at the slow tempo she preferred and there is still room for solos by the accompanying musicians. The new developments made the whole recording process more relaxed and not only enabled the musicians to escape the tyranny of time restrictions, being able to take their time also induced the musicians to fashion their studio solos in ways that previously they could not.
In the fifties, the musicians could finally record in optimal tempos and at whatever length that felt fitting for the performance. Recording technology was finally catching up with musical reality. It is in this context that Ben Webster is resplendent. Although the other musicians are no slouches, Webster’s work is particularly striking in both its originality and its particular affinity to Billie’s voice.
This Mixtape opens with two selections from Billie’s November 10, 1956 triumphant Carnegie Hall concert. The first is New York Times journalist Gilbert Millstein reading from Billie’s autobiography Lady Sings The Blues, immediately followed by Billie singing the title song. The balance of the Mixtape is from January 1957 recording sessions held in Los Angeles.
I have more that I could say about the repertoire and about the accompanying musicians but all of that has been better said before by others far more knowledgeable than me. In one sense, the preceding sentence is an advertisement for why you should invest in the box set of the complete Billie Holiday Verve recordings, which includes alternate takes and even some studio chatter and commentary, plus interviews and personal essays by participating musicians as well as feature essays about the music. The set is not only historically and musically significant, it is essential if one is a serious student of Billie Holiday.
The rest is left to your own appreciation of what you hear.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Lady Day Verve Years Mixtape Playlist
The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve
01 “Lady Sings The Blues With Reading From Lady Sings The Blues”
02 “Lady Sings The Blues”
03 “I Wished On The Moon”
04 “A Foggy Day”
05 “Darn That Dream”
06 “But Not For Me”
07 “Body And Soul”
08 “Say It Isn't So”
09 “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)”
10 “Embraceable You”
11 “Let's Call The Whole Thing Off”
12 “Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You?”
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