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If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery by Farah Jasmine Griffin

With so many bone-dry books on jazz printed daily, Farah Jasmine Griffin’s paean to Billie Holiday arrives like the aroma of gardenia. Griffin, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, makes no claim that her book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery is the work of a musicologist or a musician. She is neither. She is a highly intelligent, articulate and, most of all, passionate lover of jazz-someone who also happens to be a black woman and thus connects with Holiday in various and profound ways. She explores those connections in this highly personal view of Holiday, and what it means “to be talented, black, sensual and complex.” She finds in Holiday not only a spiritual soul mate-someone too often judged by everything but her talent-but also a model for her own art as a writer. “Listening to her pare down a lyric and melody to the barest minimum free of pretension, making it impossible not to confront its meaning, became a model for me of a way of doing intellectual work.”

The basis of Holiday’s talent was her integrity-her refusal to be a maid or a whore in a white man’s world. She instead decides to become a singer. The title-If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery, is a line from a Rita Dove poem. “Choosing to be a mystery is the one way to maintain a semblance of control,” Griffin writes, “to keep your inner self to yourself. This is an act of agency for the unfree.”

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