THE DOZENS: TWELVE ESSENTIAL BILLIE HOLIDAY PERFORMANCES by Stuart Nicholson



              Billie Holiday
, artwork by Michael Symonds

Billie Holiday was probably the most complete, unadulterated jazz singer of all time, something that has been overshadowed by the quirk of the human condition which sees fascination in those who gamble with life and lose. “To live longer than forty years is bad manners,” said Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and Billie Holiday offended by only four years. She crammed a lot of living into her short life and for many of her fans her real-life story is the source of meaning in her voice. During her early career she sang from the perspective a woman unlucky in love, but as an older woman never far from the clamour of the tabloid headlines, she sang from the perspective of a woman unlucky in life, frequently choosing songs in the first person where her life experiences appeared to be mirrored in the lyrics of her songs.

Listening to Billie Holiday can be as profoundly moving as it can be profoundly exhilarating. Although a sense of sadness and waste provide the backdrop to her troubled yet colourful life, that life is ultimately redeemed by the joy, the passion and, in her final years, the pathos in her music.


Benny Goodman (featuring Billie Holiday): Riffin' the Scotch

Track

Riffin' the Scotch

Group

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (featuring Billie Holiday)

CD

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Columbia/Legacy CXX 85470)

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Musicians:

Benny Goodman (clarinet), Billie Holiday (vocals), Charlie Teagarden (trumpet), Shirley Clay (trumpet), Jack Teagarden (trombone), Art Karle (tenor sax), Dick McDonough (guitar), Artie Bernstein (bass), Gene Krupa (drums),

Buck Washington (piano)

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Arranged by Dean Kincade

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Recorded: New York, December 27, 1933

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Rating: 83/100 (learn more)

This is Holiday's recording debut at the age of 18. Record producer John Hammond had taken Benny Goodman, Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey to see her in live performance and they quickly concurred she was the real deal. Here, with lyrics courtesy of Johnny Mercer at Holiday's behest, she was defining her approach to singing through the character part of a woman unlucky in love. The lyrics could have been about riffs, they could have been about Scotch whisky, but were none of those things. They were about jumping from one bad relationship with a man into another. As a 13-year-old feeling her way into jazz in 1928 when she first heard "West End Blues," she was hardly in a position to define her approach to jazz singing. With most of 1929 lost through her run-in with the law, she put together an original approach to jazz singing in just three years, from 1930 to 1933, when this recording was made. By any standards it was a remarkable achievement.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Teddy Wilson (featuring Billie Holiday): What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Track

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Group

Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra (featuring Billie Holiday)

CD

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Columbia/Legacy CXX 85470)

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Musicians:

Teddy Wilson (piano), Billie Holiday (vocals), Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Benny Goodman (clarinet), Ben Webster (tenor sax), John Kirby (bass), Cozy Cole (drums),

John Trueheart (guitar)

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Composed by Harry M. Woods

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Recorded: New York, July 2, 1935

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Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

In June 1935, John Hammond approached Brunswick and secured a 12-month contract guaranteeing one session a month built around pianist Teddy Wilson. Hammond was to act as producer for the series, primarily aimed at the fast expanding coin-operated music-machine business. For their first session, Hammond pulled out all the stops to assemble a genuine all-star ensemble, even persuading Goodman to cut short rehearsals with his own big band for their first out-of-town booking in Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre. Goodman’s contribution turned out to be so inspired he helped make this one of the finest Billie Holiday-Teddy Wilson sessions. It opens with what effectively is the Goodman trio – after a 4-bar intro by Wilson, Goodman states the 32-bar theme in the chalumeau register, then launches into a genuinely hot chorus that leads into Billie’s suave vocal. Riveting stuff – indeed, Wilson would later say, “That session was never, never surpassed. It may have been equaled, but never surpassed.”

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Teddy Wilson (featuring Billie Holiday): I'll Get By

Track

I’ll Get By

Group

Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra (featuring Billie Holiday)

CD

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Columbia/Legacy CXX 85470)

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Musicians:

Teddy Wilson (piano), Billie Holiday (vocals), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Buster Bailey (clarinet), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Lester Young (tenor sax), Alan Reuss (guitar), Artie Bernstein (bass), Cozy Cole (drums).

Composed by Fred E. Ahlert and Roy Turk

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Recorded: New York, May 11, 1937

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Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

One of the high spots of recorded jazz is the Holiday-Young collaborations. Today these recordings are remembered for the brilliance of Holiday’s singing and the inspirational creativity she inspired in Young, but it is often overlooked that Young’s highly regarded work with Count Basie’s band, with whom he was then working, was based on half a dozen basic chord structures, mainly the blues and “I Got Rhythm” contrafacts. However, with Holiday he had the opportunity stretch his wings and address different chord structures in a variety of keys. Here, for example, is a 28-bar, rather than 32-bar, song form with an ABAC structure (instead of the more usual AABA form), where the B and C sections are six bars instead of the usual eight. Singer and saxophonist relish the challenge on this awkward vehicle for improvisation. Billie shines with one of her most economical vocals, essentially based on just six notes, with two forays to the bottom of her range. At one point she sings no fewer than twenty-six repeated A’s, which depend for their impact on her fantastic rhythmic placement. There was genius abroad in the air.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Billie Holiday: Me, Myself and I

Track

Me, Myself and I

Group

Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra

CD

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Columbia/Legacy CXX 85470)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Edmond Hall (clarinet), Lester Young (tenor sax), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums),

James Sherman (piano)

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Composed by Irving Gordon, Alvin S. Kaufman and Allan Roberts

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Recorded: New York, June 15, 1937

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Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

“Me, Myself and I” is one of the great classics of the Billie Holiday-Lester Young collaborations. The song is recorded here in the key of D major, which rather appropriately is associated with vigor and clarity of expression in classical music -- a feeling sustained through both available takes made available on the Columbia/Legacy set. Over the years there has been some confusion over their identification – take 1 ends on the tonic; take 2 on the dominant, which is sorted out on this set. Part of the Holiday-Young magic is the way their collaborations often go beyond “leading voice”-“accompaniment” roles into the realms of a duet. Who can say which of the two lines predominates here? An added frisson is added by the presence of Freddie Green, then Holiday’s lover. How would history have read if she had settled for steady Freddie?

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Billie Holiday: A Sailboat in the Moonlight

Track

A Sailboat in the Moonlight

Group

Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra

CD

Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Columbia/Legacy CXX 85470)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Lester Young (tenor sax), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Edmond Hall (clarinet), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums),

James Sherman (piano)

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Composed by Guy Lombardo

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Recorded: New York, June 15, 1937

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Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

The electricity evident in “Me, Myself and I” is hot-wired into “Sailboat” -- both recorded at the same session -- as the give-and-take of a Holiday and Young “duet” again takes center stage, reflecting creative music making at its highest as they play off one another. Listen to how Young anticipates Holiday’s phrasing before she sings “what a perfect setting,” or the way she responds to Young’s high F-sharp (a yelp of joy?) in the final middle eight with a treatise of perfect swing, sitting on top of the beat and capturing the very essence of jazz. It is truly remarkable how such spontaneity and highly attenuated musical rapport still has the capacity to enthrall and speak to us down the years as fresh and vital as the day it was recorded.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Eddie Heywood (featuring Billie Holiday): All of Me

Track

All of Me

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals) and Lester Young (tenor sax)

CD

Lady Day & Pres 1937-41 (Frémeaux FA013)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Lester Young (tenor sax), Lester 'Shad' Collins (trumpet), Eddie Barefield (alto sax), Eddie Heywood (piano), John Collins (guitar), Kenny Clarke (drums),

Leslie Johnakins (alto sax), Ted Sturgis (bass)

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Composed by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons

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Recorded: New York, March 21, 1941

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Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

On what was their final Columbia session together, Young was given only two brief solos on the sides selected for release. However, it was only because of the arbitrary limits of the ten-inch 78-rpm record that the magical take 3 of “All of Me” remained in Columbia’s vaults until the release of The Lester Young Story Volume 5 in 1980. It was too long – by some 30 seconds – to fit onto a ten-inch 78, and so was never released. In all probability it was a first cut and Holiday and Young are captured at their zenith, Young taking sixteen bars after Billie’s vocal, Heywood following with eight bars and Young returning for a final eight bars to lead back into Billie’s vocal.

The way both phrase had taken on a certain gravitas and beauty that neither would totally recapture. Heywood later said he was mesmerized by their performances on this number; indeed, the listener is abruptly brought back to reality at the end by the engineer’s admonition, “It’s a bit long.” “Yeah, I know,” responds Billie. “We’ll bring it up a little bit.” “It’s a half a minute long,” the disembodied voice persists. It was almost as if they knew their lives were about to follow separate trajectories and they we saying their goodbyes in the only way they know how – through music.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Paul Whiteman (featuring Billie Holiday): Trav'lin Light

Track

Trav’lin’ Light

Group

Paul Whiteman (featuring Billie Holiday)

CD

Billie Holiday: Billie’s Blues (Blue Note 48786 )

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals),

Monty Kelly, Larry Neill, Don Waddilove (trumpet); Skip Leighton, Murray McEachern, unknown (trombone); Alvy West, Dan D’Andre, Lennie Hartman, unknown (reeds); Buddy Weed (piano), Mike Pingitore (guitar), Artie Shapiro (bass), Willie Rodriguez (drums), unidentified strings

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Arranged by Jimmy Mundy. Conducted by Paul Whiteman

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Recorded: Los Angeles, June 12, 1942

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Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

This one-off recording with Paul Whiteman on the West Coast is a reminder of what an experienced big band singer Billie Holiday was. She had appeared on film with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, was a member of Ralph Cooper’s big band, played a series of dates with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, appeared briefly with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, was a member of the Count Basie orchestra for almost a year, was with Artie’s Shaw’s orchestra for almost as long and had guested with Benny Goodman’s big band on radio by the time she recorded this neglected classic. The wonderfully languorous muted trombone of Skip Layton sets the mood for Holiday’s masterful vocal that follows. A good microphone picks up her voice at its peak and the way she subtly alters the melody and brings expressive weight to the lyric content is a great exposition of less-is-more. The lyrics tell a story of being unlucky in love, which was consistent with the character part that was now her nightclub persona. The tonal contrast of strings brings Holiday’s voice into sharp relief and touched an Achilles heel – the next time she recorded for a big record label she wanted strings.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Billie Holiday: That Ole Devil Called Love

Track

That Ole Devil Called Love

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals)

CD

The Complete Decca Recordings (GRP 601)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Hymie Schertzer (alto sax), Jack Cressy (alto sax), George Wettling (drums),

Larry Binyon (tenor sax), Dave Harris (tenor sax), Dave Bowman (piano), Carl Cress (guitar), Haig Stephens (bass) and unidentified six string players

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Arranged and conducted by Toots Camarata. Composed by by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher

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Recorded: New York, November 8, 1944

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Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Just as Henri-Cartier-Bresson referred to the “decisive moment” that captured the perfect photographic image, here perhaps is a “lyric moment” that defined the singer in the character role she created for herself. Once again she sings about love and her man, but love can be an obsession, and it is from this standpoint she sings. There is a wonderful film noir quality about this performance, very much of its time, yet with a depth and universality that transcends its era. The instrumental backdrop framing the singer is quite different from her free-wheeling sides for Brunswick and Vocalion (Columbia), a decision by producer Milt Gabler, who consciously put her in a pop context to avoid competing with her past triumphs. The use of strings creates a fresh, and it must be said, wholly appropriate backdrop for her voice at this point in her career. The jazz elements of her singing – swing feel, syncopation, modifying the melodic line – are less important than the symmetry between words, rhythm and the authenticity she brings to her interpretation, the latter signified by the grain in her voice. Here she seems less concerned with a “jazz” presentation of the song, concentrating instead on meaning.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Billie Holiday: Good Morning Heartache (1946)

Track

Good Morning Heartache

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals)

CD

The Complete Decca Recordings (GRP 601)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Tiny Grimes (guitar), John Simmons (bass), Sid Catlett (drums),

Joe Guy (trumpet), Gordon Griffin (trumpet), Bill Stegmeyer (alto saxophone and musical director), Hank Ross, Bernie Kaufman, Armand Camgros (tenor saxophone), Joe Springer (piano) and four string players

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Composed by Irene Higgenbotham, Ervin Drake, and Dan Fisher

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Recorded: New York, January 22, 1946

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Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Like “That Ole Devil Called Love,” composed by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, staff writers for a Decca publishing affiliate, “Good Morning Heartache” was especially written for Holiday at the behest of producer Milt Gabler. This time he turned to the former Mrs. Teddy Wilson, Irene Higginbotham, a close friend of Holiday, who with evocative “period” backing obliges with a performance so profound that once heard it goes on to enjoy a second life, a life within memory. The lyrics of “Heartache” again conform to her character part -- indeed, the importance of a singer finding a character part (or image) in popular music is something that would later become commonplace; Sinatra with his barstool performances, Piaf as the sparrow unbroken by life, and Garland who was. Image goes to the heart of Holiday’s appeal down the years, yet even today the way it interacts with her music remains the least understood aspect of her art.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Billie Holiday: Tain't Nobody's Business

Track

Tain't Nobody's Business

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals)

CD

The Complete Decca Recordings (GRP 601)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Jimmy Nottingham (trumpet), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Emmett Berry (trumpet), Dicky Wells (trombone), Rudy Powell (alto sax), Lester Young (tenor sax), Joe Thomas (tenor sax), Horace Henderson (piano), Mundell Lowe (guitar), George Duvivier (bass), Shadow Wilson (drums),

George Matthews (trombone), George Dorsey (alto sax), Sol Moore (baritone sax), Buster Harding (musical director)

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Composed by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins

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Recorded: New York, August 17, 1949

Albumcoverbillieholidaycomdec

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

On May 27, 1947, Billie Holiday was sentenced to a year and a day for possession of narcotic drugs, remaining in custody until March 16, 1948. The publicity associated with her bust and subsequent prison sentence brought her notoriety, and her appearances began attracting the curious and thrill seekers. It was something she bridled at, so “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” must be viewed in this context – more personal statement than enduring performance. Fans familiar with her well-publicized troubles considered it her anthem, and she frequently sang it in her stage shows. Its interest lies in how it reinforced her perceived “authenticity” while defiantly justifying her self-indulgence. Before, she'd sung from the standpoint of a woman unlucky in love; now, as an older woman, her experiences provided a new perspective from which to sing: as a woman unlucky in life. Audiences began to read her personal history into each performance as she consciously erected the legend into which she would finally step, closing the doors firmly behind her.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Billie Holiday: All or Nothing at All

Track

All or Nothing at All

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals)

CD

The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959 (Verve 517658)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Harry "Sweets" Edison (trumpet), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Jimmy Rowles (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Red Mitchell (bass), Alvin Stoller (drums).

Composed by Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence

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Recorded: Los Angeles, August 18, 1956

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Rating: 80/100 (learn more)

Norman Granz told me that although he once had to wind up a recording session with Billie because she was too drunk to continue, the greatest problem he had with her was getting her to learn new material. He said he wanted to return her to the informal jam session feel of the 1930s Columbia sides, which he considered her best work, but did not want to revisit the same material. By now the reckless vitality of youth had given way to a more melancholy spirit, increasingly trapped within the infinite loops of alcohol and drug addiction. Her voice had frayed, her range was smaller and the tonal quality of her voice deeper, but like all great artists she makes the most of her limitations -- here focusing on the lyric content and using her harmonic ingenuity to avoid notes beyond her range. She succeeds in personalizing and stylizing an unfamiliar song in her own special way. Her accompanists provide generous support, with Edison and Webster offering obbligatos behind her vocal and Rowles and Kessel providing tasteful solos that sustain the song’s drama. During Billie's time with Verve, Granz succeeded in coaxing a series of performances from her that at their best were moving, uniquely personal and fascinating cameos of the less-is-more aesthetic.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Billie Holiday: For All We Know

Track

For All We Know

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals)

CD

Lady in Satin (CBS 450883)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Billy Butterfield (trumpet), Bernie Glow (trumpet), Urbie Green (trombone), Gene Quill (alto sax), Hank Jones (piano), Barry Galbraith (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Osie Johnson (drums),

Mel Davis (trumpet), Ray Ellis (musical director)

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Composed by Sam M. Lewis and J. Fred Coots

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Recorded: New York, February 19, 1958

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Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Billie told arranger/conductor Ray Ellis she wanted to “sound like Sinatra” after hearing Gordon Jenkins’s scoring for strings on Only the Lonely. More than any other Holiday album, it's necessary to know Billie’s real-life history to interpret Lady in Satin properly. “We started to pick the songs, and I didn’t realize that the titles she was picking at the time were really the story of her life,” Ellis said later. Clearly Billie struggles to maintain aesthetic distance from her personal anguish – indeed, Milt Hinton’s photographs taken during the sessions show her emotionally distressed. As one half of the mind reacts to the boozy huskiness in her voice and her shaky intonation, the other half is shocked by the extent to which the singer’s real-life history has become the source of meaningfulness in her voice. This disjunction produces an uncomfortable listening experience. The singer’s history and art become a unified whole that is infinite and total, a subconscious bonding that allows Lady in Satin – and “For All We Know” in particular – to realize its full meaning. Here the creative moment is distinguished by the immediacy of her limping lyricism; stripped of artifice, it comes as close to an expression of pure feeling as words will allow.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


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