In 2015, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth. In 2020, the documentary Billie was released and now the flawed biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday has come out. In the last several years, there have been significant tribute records by Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson and José James. In addition, songs from Billie’s repertoire have earned a permanent place in jazz performance, being represented on many recent releases. Interest in Billie Holiday has never been higher. As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, a tribute to Billie Holiday in this hour of Jazz at 100 Today!
Cassandra Wilson, José James and Andy Bey
Cassandra Wilson, as I have said before, gets my vote as the best jazz singer of her generation. For some time, she has largely eschewed the traditional instrumentation of jazz-singing accompaniment and she does so again on her 2015 tribute to Billie Holiday, Coming Forth by Day, anchored as it is with atmospheric slide guitars and upright pianos side-by-side with film noir tenor sax. Her version of the Billie Holliday – Arthur Herzog, Jr. ballad Don’t Explain is equal parts dark and hopeful.
C. Michael Bailey wrote, “The centerpiece of the recording is the sublime ballad, The Way You Look Tonight. There may be no more perfect song sung by anyone. Wilson and her handlers make it a piece of perfection that proves that when a piece is composed, the appropriate performer may not yet exist. Introduced by the sublime bass clarinet into a 1950’s musical environment, Wilson sings slowly those words of love and longing. It is a perfect performance of a standard.”
God Bless The Child, another Billie Holliday – Arthur Herzog, Jr. ballad is featured on the José James 2015 tribute Yesterday I Had The Blues – The Music Of Billie Holiday. James combines his smokey baritone with an excellent and sympathetic trio of Jason Moran on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. The traditional musical setting serves to emphasize the lyrics and their story.
After a long career, Andy Bey has stripped his presentation to the essentials of a spare piano, his singular voice and a ton of emotions. Of his reading of Good Morning Heartache on 2014’s Pages From an Imaginary Life, Christopher Louden wrote on JazzTimes, “Bey’s once-mighty four-octave voice has diminished to ash; or, more accurately, platinum dust. Phrase for phrase, he now packs a bruised emotional wallop rivaled only by Billie Holiday. They share an incomparably noble vulnerability. Never has Good Morning Heartache sounded so gorgeously despondent (or, at least, not since Holiday).”
Don’t Explain. Cassandra Wilson Sextet
(Robby Marshall-sax/bcl/melodica, Jon Cowherd-p/key, Kevin Breit-g, Martyn Casey-b, Thomas Wydler-d/per, Cassandra Wilson-voc). From Coming Forth By Day. Legacy. 2015. First Recorded by Billie Holiday for MCAG in 1944. Written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.
God Bless The Child. José James Quartet
(Jason Moran-p, John Patitucci-b, Eric Harland-d, José James-voc). From Yesterday I Had The Blues – The Music Of Billie Holiday. Blue Note. 2015. First Recorded by Billie Holiday for Okeh in 1941. Written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.
Good Morning Heartache. Andy Bey Solo
(Andy Bey-p/voc). From Pages From an Imaginary Life. High Note. 2014. First Recorded by Billie Holiday for Decca in 1946.
The Way You Look Tonight. Cassandra Wilson Sextet
(Robby Marshall-sax/bcl/melodica, Jon Cowherd-p/key, Kevin Breit-g, Martyn Casey-b, Thomas Wydler-d/per, Cassandra Wilson-voc). From Coming Forth by Day. Legacy. 2015. First Recorded by Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson for Brunswick in 1936.
Mary Stallings, DeeDee Bridgewater and Jose James
Mary Stallings made her singing debut with Cal Trader a scant two years after Billie Holiday died in 1959. Her 2019 release Songs Were Made To Sing, includes a lovely rendition of Lover Man, first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1944.
Billie Holiday first recorded What a Little Moonlight Can Do with Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra in 1935. In his recording, José James has Jason Moran stretch out on piano for several choruses before breaking into the familiar lyrics.
With much less restraint, Dee Dee Bridgewater and saxophonist James Carter tackle Miss Brown To You, another tune from the same Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson session from July 1935. Bridgewater released her tribute, Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee, in 2010 with Edsel Gomez on piano, Christian McBride on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums.
Lover Man. Mary Stallings Sextet with Daniel Sadownick
(Eddie Henderson-tp, Vincent Herring-as/ts, David Hazeltine-p, David Williams-b, Joe Farnsworth-d, Daniel Sadownick -per, Mary Stallings-voc). From Songs Were Made to Sing. Smoke Sessions SSR 1903. 2019. First Recorded by Billie Holiday for Commodore in 1944.
What A Little Moonlight Can Do. José James Quartet
(Jason Moran-p, John Patitucci-b, Eric Harland-d, José James-voc). From Yesterday I Had The Blues – The Music Of Billie Holiday. Blue Note. 2015. First Recorded by Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson for Brunswick in 1935.
Miss Brown To You. Dee Dee Bridgewater Quintet
(James Carter-ts, Edsel Gomez-p, Christian McBride-b, Lewis Nash-d, Dee Dee Bridgewater-voc). From Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee. DDB Records. 2010. First Recorded by Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson for Brunswick in 1935.
Jazzmeia Horn, DeeDee Bridgewater, Jose James and Cassandra Wilson
Dee Dee Bridgewater and bassist Christian McBride performed Mother’s Son-In-Law on her tribute disc largely as duet that shows why McBride is in such demand as a music partner. Billie Holiday’s version was recorded with Bennie Goodman in 1933.
Jazzmeia Horn and bassist Ben Williams recorded an equally playful version of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer standard I Thought About You on her 2019 disc Love and Liberation. The 1939 tune was already a standard when Billie Holiday recorded her version for Norman Granz’s Clef imprint in 1954, in the autumn of her career.
Cassandra Wilson includes another one of Billie Holliday’s rare compositions Billie’s Blues in her tribute disc. C. Michael Bailey writes, “…Wilson reserves some spine rattling performances for a rare few pieces… Billie’s Blues is a transformed piece of 12-bars that is shot well ahead of us by ingenious production. The dirt and grit of Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson are brought into the world of [guitarist] T Bone Burnette. Sex is no longer a fecund and aromatic act of procreation but an experience of pleasure enjoyed only by the gods.”
The story of Strange Fruit and Billie Holiday is the stuff of myth and legend. What seems true is that she often ended her sets by performing the song on a dark stage with only a spotlight on her face, then would leave without an encore for greatest effect. It seems only right to finish this review of recent versions of songs associated with her by also playing Strange Fruit. José James recorded a remarkably powerful rendition on his tribute, putting the song in a achingly spare a cappella setting.
Mother’s Son-In-Law. Dee Dee Bridgewater – Christian McBride duo
(Christian McBride-b, Dee Dee Bridgewater-voc). From Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee. DDB Records. 2010. First Recorded by Billie Holiday with Benny Goodman for Columbia in 1933.
I Thought About You. Jazzmeia Horn – Ben Williams duo
(Ben Williams-b, Jazzmeia Horn-voc). From Love and Liberation. Concord Jazz. 2019. First Recorded by Billie Holiday for Clef in 1954.
Billie’s Blues. Cassandra Wilson Septet
(Robby Marshall-sax/bcl/melodica, Jon Cowherd-p/key, Kevin Breit-g, T-Bone Burnett-bar-g, Martyn Casey-b, Thomas Wydler-d/per, Cassandra Wilson-voc). From Coming Forth By Day. Legacy. 2015. First Recorded by Billie Holiday for Vocalion in 1936. Written by Billie Holiday.
Strange Fruit. José James solo
(José James-voc). From Yesterday I Had The Blues – The Music Of Billie Holiday. Blue Note. 2015. First Recorded by Billie Holiday for Commodore in 1939.
Perhaps no singer in jazz history lives on so richly through consistent reinvention of her work as does Billie Holliday. The centennial of her birth was the catalyst for a highpoint in the arch of the trajectory of our memory of her legacy. There is no reason to think that she won’t continue to inspire further generations of singers and players of this music.
Bailey, C. Michael. (2015, April 21). AllAboutJazz. Cassandra Wilson: Coming Forth By Day. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/cassandra-wilson-coming-forth-by-day-by-c-michael-bailey.php
Turner, Mark F. (2015, April 21). AllAboutJazz. José James: Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/yesterday-i-had-the-blues-the-music-of-billie-holiday-by-mark-f-turner.php
Loudon, Christopher. (2015, January 3). Andy Bey: Pages From an Imaginary Life. https://jazztimes.com/reviews/albums/andy-bey-pages-from-an-imaginary-life/
Gilbert, Andrew. (2019, June 12). JazzTimes. Mary Stallings: Songs Were Made to Sing (Smoke Sessions). https://jazztimes.com/reviews/albums/mary-stallings-songs-were-made-to-sing-smoke-sessions/
Loudon, Christopher. (2010, April 1). JazzTimes. Dee Dee Bridgewater: Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee. https://jazztimes.com/reviews/albums/dee-dee-bridgewater-eleanora-fagan-1915-1959-to-billie-with-love-from-dee-dee/
Patterson, Ian. (2019, September 13). AllAboutJazz. Jazzmeia Horn: Love & Liberation. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/love-and-liberation-jazzmeia-horn-concord-jazz-review-by-ian-patterson.php
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