Listed as #1 in an on-line list of Greatest Jazz Vocalists I found, I’m finally going to respond to the requests from several weeks ago and profile a female jazz vocalist:
Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915, and raised in Baltimore, Billie Holiday had what Wikipedia euphemistically calls “a difficult childhood which affected her life and career.” (Warning – rest of the paragraph is rated “R”) Her mother was 13 when she was born; her father, a jazz guitarist, was 15. Her parents married three years later, but soon divorced; she was raised by her mother and her mother’s family. “A hardened and angry child,” she left school at an early age, and may have worked with her mother as a prostitute before moving to New York in the early 1930’s. She rarely saw her father, and when she did, she would shake him down for money, threatening to tell his girlfriend that she was his daughter.
Settling in Harlem, she sang informally in clubs and was discovered in 1932 by record producer John Hammond, who arranged for her to record with Benny Goodman in 1933. By 1934 she was performing at the Apollo Theater to rave reviews, and soon began appearing with well-known bands led by Lester Young, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw. She was able to break the color barrier and appear with white bands, trademark white gardenia in her hair, but still had to use the back entrance, and wait in a separate dark room offstage before performing.
She was a recreational drug user much of her life, by some accounts starting on marijuana at 12 or 13. Heroine, however, was to be her downfall; by 1940 she was injecting the drug intravenously. Her drug and alcohol use marred her success and eventually affected her voice, as with Janis Joplin a generation later. She was arrested for heroin possession and served 8 months in prison; more importantly she lost her New York City Cabaret Card, which kept her from performing there the last 12 years of her life.
She had a series of abusive relationships; she married trombonist Jimmy Monroe in 1941, but left him to become the common-law wife of trumpeter Joe Guy. She divorced Monroe and left Guy in 1957 to marry Louis McKay, a Mafia “enforcer.” While also abusive, he did try to get her off drugs. They had separated by the time of her death.
Holiday was swindled out of her savings, and died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 in cash. She was hospitalized in May 1959 for liver and heart problems, and was placed under house arrest on July 12 for drug possession. She remained under police guard until she died on July 17, 1959 of cirrhosis of the liver at age 44.
Her hard life lent an authenticity and emotion to her songs that was palpable to audiences.
While her recordings in the 1930s were still somewhat girlish, by the 1940s her voice was “lovingly sweet, weathered and experienced, sad and sophisticated (Wikipedia).” In the 1950s, her range was limited and her voice was rougher, but she had great phrasing and emotion. Orchestra conductor/arranger Ray Ellis had this to say about her last recording session in 1958:
I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of “I’m a Fool to Want You”. There were tears in her eyes… After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.
(I’ll do Ella Fitzgerald next, unless there’s an outcry for a different female vocalist, so don’t despair Ella fans…)
Roy Hargrove. Born 1969. Trumpeter/composer
Barney Kessel. Born 1923. Guitarist.
Wynton Marsalis. Born 1961. Trumpeter/composer/band leader
Jelly Roll Morton. Born 1890. Pianist/composer
Dizzy Gillespie. Born 1917. Trumpeter/composer/band leader
Here are links, and blurbs about the sites. I haven’t had a chance to check them all out, so you’re pioneering here. Let us know what you find if you go!
D.D. Jackson’s Living Jazz Podcast: New York-based jazz pianist/composer and Down Beat columnist D.D. Jackson’s discussions on the world of jazz & beyond (I download this one regularly; the conversations are usually interesting, as are his ideas on the future of the music business in the internet age)
Night Passage Jazz Podcast: The official podcast of nightpassage.org – A podcast in English from Rome, Italy. Great Indie Jazz (and occasionally other genres) from all over the world. Member of the ASSOCIATION OF MUSIC PODCASTING
Gallery 41 – Interviews with Jazz Legends: From a collection of rare, historical, and personal conversations recorded with some of the greatest Jazz legends of our generation. Recorded and produced for Gallery 41 by Ron J. Pelletier
Straight No Chaser – A Jazz Show: The Podcast for Jazz Lovers Everywhere (Episode #8 previews the artists appearing at the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz)
Jazz and Conversation, with Nick Francis: The Ultimate Jazz Blog, with Reviews, Raves and Audio From The World of Jazz, Ambient, and World Music. (Current episode is on the Monk and Coltrane CD I mentioned last week)
redJazz.com Great jazz music found as free downloads from around the internet or contributed by the artists themselves, brought to you each week as a 30 minute radio show.
Hot Springs Jazz Fest: The official podcast of the 2005 Hot Springs Jazz Fest
TOPLEXIL JAZZ PODCAST: Site du podcast Toplexil dédié au Jazz Bebop, Cool, Hardbop principalement. Toplexil is a Jazz oriented podcast. (Website is mostly in French, but I could figure out how to download the music without speaking French.)
JazzDJ – Explorations in jazz: Explorations in jazz – exploring the many essences of that jazz juice groove:
I began Djing in 1988 during the Rare Groove/Acid Jazz moment. My jazz collection includes most flavours including Blue Note, Jazz Funk, Rare Groove, JapJazz, Acid Jazz, Disco Jazz, Cuban, Jazz House, Break Beats, Latin, Brazilian, Soul, Dance Jazz, Funk! I have played festivals, clubs, bars, parties… too many nights to mention, both in the UK and abroad.
GavezDois: Appears to be an eclectic Brazilian podcast (from what Portuguese I can translate from my knowledge of Spanish); Episode 35 features the progressive jazz group “Thursday Group”:
Podcast número 35. Hoje nós vamos ouvir pela primeira vez o programa Jazz. Aqui ouviremos novidades do mundo do jazz e, sempre que possível, músicas de distribuição livre. Neste primeiro episódio escolhi para lhe apresentar um grupo norte-americano chamado Thursday Group, que se classificam como um grupo de jazz progressivo.
I’ll end with this Brazilian podcast, as it leads right into one of my topics for next week – Bossa Nova…
Take the Billie Holiday Memorial poll: