by Roland Howell
She hangs on the wall of my den, next to Louie, head back, mouth open in silent song, a plaintive look on her face, like the jazz singer she was, delivering the blues. I saw her, just once, in Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor Michigan, a Norman Granz thing. A bunch of us wandered backstage after the concert. She was stoned, which is probably why I couldn’t remember anything special about her appearance that night. But that didn’t matter, there were still her records from the thirties.
It was the late forties at Michigan. There was a guy named, Dick Garrett. He was studying architecture on the GI Bill. He loved Billie. He’d come over to the Dorm and bring a couple of her 78’s. We had a single play turntable and he’d put on one of her tunes, set the needle, and lay down on a cot next to the player. He’d lie there, listening, looking at the ceiling, smiling. When the record ended he’d, reach over, pick up the arm, and move it back for another go, without getting up. He used to say he wished he could marry Billie. She wouldn’t have to cook, clean the house, or have sex with him. “She’d just have to sing to me,” he’d say. He got me started on Billie. After college I started to pick up some “platters” of her thirties days, mostly small combo work with some of the greatest, like Teddy Wilson on piano, even Benny Goodman now and then on the clarinet, Ben Webster on the tenor, Buck Clayton on trumpet and sometimes Roy Eldridge, with Cozy Cole on drums. That was Billie when she was young. Her voice was clear, never any histrionics, always close to the melody, with that gorgeous intonation that subtley suggested that she was black. Sometimes she was a whisker off the beat but always controlled.
She moved up in the popular music world after the mid thirties singing with Artie Shaw’s band. But when the band broadcast on network radio the Old Gold cigarette sponsor insisted Artie feature only his white vocalist, Helen Forrest. It was prejudice over talent in those days. Billie did not endure prejudice quietly. One day, Dick Garrett brought a record of Billie’s that I hadn’t heard. On one side was a blues tune she wrote herself called “Fine and Mellow”. On the other a dirge like number called “Strange Fruit”. The lyrics were devastatingly descriptive of lynchings in the South. It was a poem set to music by a leftist teacher named Abel Meeropol. He had brought it to a jazz club where Billie was featured. He wanted her to sing it. In her own words she told about the first time she did. “I was scared people would hate it,” she said. “The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake…there wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began clapping nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.”
When Dick Garrett played it for me that first time I had no quarrel with the message. It just wasn’t the way I liked to hear Billie. “Fine and Mellow” was pure Billie at her best. But, “Strange Fruit” was to become her signature song for many years. People began to ask her to sing it at each performance. Abel Meroopol, the, song’s poet author, surfaced again almost a decade later when he and his wife adopted, and raised, the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after they were executed.
After college I’d pick up a Downbeat now and then. Articles began to appear about Billie’s troubles. Alcohol, pot, and heroin began affecting her health. She had been arrested for possession, even spent time in a woman’s reformatory. Count Basie had fired her and her singing was sad to listen to, according to many of the critics. And all her life she had made bad choices in men, to boot. I forgot about Billie for awhile. I got married, became a father, and plugged away at making a living. Then, one night in December of 1957, I turned on the TV. CBS was showing a program called “The Sound of Jazz” and there was Billie sitting on a stool surrounded by a group of great instrumentalists. I can still remember some of them. Roy Eldridge was on trumpet and there were four tenors, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Ben Webster, and Lester Young. I was surprised at how old Billie looked. She was thin and didn’t look well. Then it started, Billie’s old tune “Fine and Mellow”. If Billie’s voice had gone away it had come back home that night, just a tiny bit raspy but full with the old beautiful intonation.
They all soloed with Billie staying quiet listening, smiling, swaying lightly to the beat. Lester Young took his turn last. Billie and he had been great friends at one time. She had called him “The Prez”. He called her ”Lady Day”. They played together and made records together many times but they hadn’t spoken to each for several years. Her heroin and his alcohol addiction had gotten in the way. I had listened to a lot of Lester’s records but I never heard him play better than that night on television. Then Billie took the tune out, sitting on that stool, the mike straight up on the stand in front of her, not touching it, singing the last chorus like all the poisons of the years were gone. Years later I read what Nat Hentoff, a jazz producer, who helped set up the program, wrote about that night. “Then Lester got up and he played the purest blues that I have ever heard and he and Holliday were looking at each other, their eyes sort of interlocked, and she was half smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been-whatever that was. And in, the control room, we were all crying. When the show was over they still went their separate ways.”
A little over a year later Lester, estranged from his wife, died in a hotel room in Manhattan. Billie wanted to sing at his funeral but Lester’s wife said no and Billie had to be led out crying and cursing. Three months later Billie died in a New York City hospital, officially of cardiac arrest. Joe Glaser, another jazz producer who paid for her funeral, offered a more accurate cause. He said she died of a “concoction of everything she’d done in the last twenty years.” She was forty four.
About fifteen years after she died I was walking down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan when I stopped in front of a record store. In the window was a twelve inch thirty three and a third album of Billie Holiday. I went in and told the clerk I wanted to buy the album. It cost twenty bucks. He took it out of the window and brushed some dust off. “Last one I got. You like her singing?” he asked.
“I think she was great,” I answered.
He went on. “I remember her. She used to come in here and buy records. The Blue Note was downstairs under here. Once, she came in and there were two big gunsul looking guys, one on each side of her. She looked scared as hell. Booze and dope. Same with Judy Garland. Great talent wrecked by booze and dope. It’s a godamm shame.”
“Yeah, I agree with that,” I said and left.
Many years later our son, who has a penchant for selecting appropriate gifts, gave me a two CD album of Billie called the “Autumn Years”. I never knew it existed. It was a collection of old standards she did with a small combo out of the old Basie band. It was a collection of stuff done mostly in the late forties and well into the fifties when her voice was losing it’s vibrancy. Her choice of songs were mostly ballads. And there was a different quality. Again, Nat Hentoff gave his take— “I feel there is no one in jazz who can come close in terms of emotional penetration to the Holiday on these tracks. For all those who say they liked the youthful Holiday and don’t dig Billie in middle age, I would suggest they don’t abandon these records yet, and instead save them for their own middle age.” By then I was in my own middle age and when I heard the CDs I knew what he meant right off.
Two months ago my wife and I sat alone in the restaurant at the resort where we stay in Costa Rica. One of the waiters was a young man from Argentina. He name was Leo and he spoke English. He was twenty five and looked like Antonio Banderas. I had told him that but he had just smiled and told me didn’t think so. lt was our last evening meal and the television over the bar was playing what I thought would be defined as a kind of frenetic Latin jazz.
I asked him. “Leo, do you like that music?”
“It’s okay. It’s popular here,” he answered. “Do you like it?” he asked.
I said,” Not very much. I like the old jazz, stuff from years ago, nothing you ever heard.”
“I like jazz,” he said. He paused a moment and looked at me. “I like Billie Holiday,” he said.
“Billie Holiday, how do you know about Billie Holiday?” I asked.
“Some people I worked for in Argentina had a CD and I heard some of it,” he explained. I liked it when she sang “The Very Thought of You”.
My wife smiled and began to sing parts of the song. “That’s it,” he said. Now are you ready to order?”
When we got home I could not remember hearing a record of Billie singing “The Very Thought of You” so I went up to my den and dug out the thirty three and a third album from Seventh Avenue. It was there, the fifth track on the flip side of record two. I got out the old three speed record player and set the needle on track one. I wanted to get the feel for Billie’s style, sort of sneak up on her delivery of the old Ray Noble tune. When it came on it was the epitome of Billie at her early best, cut September fifteenth, nineteen thirty nine, forty six years before Leo was born.
Roland Howell 2009