Yesterday was Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday. Rarely has the centenary of a jazz artist received as much notice. There have been tributes galore, special television and radio reports and long articles in major publications. This Rifftides remembrance of Holiday is confined to a short period of her early career in which she extended with a big band what she started with small groups in the 1930s
Holiday sang with Count Basie’s band for a year, but her contract with a different company from Basie’s prevented her from making studio recordings with him. Fortunately, air checks of radio broadcasts by that incomparable band captured three instances of Holiday with Basie in 1937. They are contained in Count Basie and his Orchestra: America’s # 1 Band (Columbia/Legacy). These rare performances let us understand why so many people who heard her with Basie have written and talked about it as the ultimate Holiday experience. Her use of rhythm, her time sense, allows her to float above the ensemble much as tenor saxophonist Lester Young did, taking the same kinds of chances with phrasing, stretching without effort across the bar lines. She has transformed her Louis Armstrong inspiration into a marvel of individual artistry. Her way with lyrics is unlike that of any singer at the time other than Armstrong’s. My guess is that her example had a profound effect on Bing Crosby, who was the country’s star vocalist when she emerged.
If you want to know who was influencing the young Frank Sinatra, if you have any doubt where Peggy Lee came from, listen to Holiday on “I Can’t Get Started” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Hear her turn the silly “Swing, Brother, Swing” into a triumph. Billie Holiday is transcendent on these air checks. For a few bars near the end of “I Can’t Get Started,” behind her we hear a bit of obbligato by her alter-ego, inspiration and best friend Lester Young.
You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling.
I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.
–Billie Holiday, born April 7, 1915, died July 17, 1959.
An early edition of this post incorrectly identified the birth date as April 8