Holiday Seasons

We live under the sway of artists who haunt our lives, who take hold at an early age and never let go; they inform us of our progress in the world as our perceptions of them change. Faulkner once said that Don Quixote had to be read three times, in childhood, adulthood and old age, because it is really three books and aspects of it are available only in stages. Over time, we bring more connections to works of art-connections that belong to us, not necessarily the work or the artist. In a world remade by Alfred Hitchcock, for example, it may be impossible to read Dickens' Hard Times without noting that the Sleary circus is a blueprint for the carnival in Saboteur; that Mrs. Sparsit is a template for Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca; that the Devil's creed, "a charming Italian motto: What will be, will be," was very differently interpreted by Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

These juxtapositions are no less true of music. As long as we're alive to it, music is a living thing, changing and growing as we do. When I started writing, an established music critic told me he could not imagine ever running out of things to say about Mozart, because every time he listened he discerned something new. I feel that way about jazz in general and especially about certain artists. Sometimes the discernment turns out to be an illusion. I'll hear a recording, experience a eureka-moment, rush to write it down, and in time realize that I had had the same epiphany 15 years ago. But it's not all illusion: the urgency is real the first or the hundredth time.

The jazz world has held few artists as close to its heart as Billie Holiday, the subject of at least 10 books and of chapters in many times that number. Her music has always been available, while time has changed its ramifications, much as her life changed over the mere 44 years of its span. Like Don Quixote, Holiday is three works in one, and the distinctions have as much to do with her stages as ours. First, there's the spirited Billie of the Columbia sessions, wailing a chorus with the boys in the band, buoyant with youthful glow and full-throated optimism. Then there's the middle-period Lady of white carnations, recording for Commodore and Decca, still effervescent but mannered, briefly politicized, and seeking respectability in string ensembles. Finally, there's the stark, vigilant, yet faded and sometimes fading Miss Holiday of the Verve sessions. I love all three periods and always have, but I find myself reverting from one to the other and reacting differently to each as time goes by.

I prefer the quality of her voice in the middle period, but grow impatient with the predictability of some of her improvisational gambits. I prefer the emotional reality of the later period, especially when pianist Jimmy Rowles clears the air around her, but at times the familiar tics undermine empathy. That's the Holiday paradox: We know what she's going to do, yet we fall for it anyway because she puts everything on the line-her heart, her technical limitations, her musical ingenuity-manifested not only in melodic finesse, but in huge open-hearted vowels (something Abbey Lincoln learned from her) that punctuate her songs with unbowed affirmation.

And what of the fabled early work, as much celebrated for her bandmates-most especially Lester Young-as for her vocals? I played them to distraction growing up, infatuated with every aspect of the music, identifying with the singer to an unearthly degree. My emotional involvement was such that inevitably I stopped listening to them for stretches of time, during which I discovered that other singers moved me as much or, in the case of Sarah Vaughan, more. But I always go back, as one does with family, and I've found in recent years, to my great surprise, that what absorbs me more than the sound of her voice, more than the less-is-more improvisational brio, more than the legato swing, more than the wistful, plaintive, occasionally jejune sad-eyed lady of the lowlands intelligence, is the way she imbues lyrics, even-no, especially-the dumb ones, with credibility. She accepts them for what they are, and honors their sentiments by embracing them with both plump red-blooded arms. Just as the revulsion she makes palpable in "Strange Fruit" is beyond the ken of other singers, so is the adoration she expresses in "A Sailboat in the Moonlight."

Recently I played a few of her early record for students who had never heard her. They were reminded of Norah Jones, and why not? If Dickens makes me think of Hitchcock, who was born 29 years after the novelist's death, why shouldn't Holiday remind people of a singer born 20 years after her death who is known for articulating lyrics and keeping a firm beat. We have no control over how generations perceive each other, and it would be lovely to think that Holiday may sustain her audience not because her life is a series of sociological or political metaphors, or because she is revered in the jazz hall of fame, but rather because her music-the way she sings songs-speaks to people who can scarcely imagine the life she led or the world in which she led it. That's a kind of immortality worth having, an artist's immortality. Your Billie may not be my Billie, but let us drink to the good health and long life of both.

Originally published in May 2005

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