When Billie Holiday Came to Boston

Remembering Lady Day’s final recording, 60 years after her death

Billie Holiday at Storyville, Boston, April 24. 1959
Billie Holiday at Storyville, Boston, April 24, 1959 (photo: Mel Levine)

Boston’s Kenmore Square is the conflux of streets that have long seemed to come together for one central purpose: to sweep passersby in the direction of Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox Nine, which is just over a rise that crosses the Mass Pike. Fans of rock & roll trivia know it for some non-sporty reasons. For more than 20 years, there was a club here called the Rathskeller—the Rat in local parlance—where scores of punk bands raged. The Beatles stayed at a hotel not far down the road on their final tour.

There is also a nondescript Pizzeria Uno housed in the Hotel Buckminster, an oblong building resembling a shoebox with curved ends. On the side of the street that most often remains in shade, heading toward Boston University, one finds a tiny placard informing those who elect to look—and I never have seen anyone do so—that this eatery used to be the jazz club Storyville.

Opened in 1950, it was run by the promoter George Wein, and it enjoyed a bustling presence in its Kenmore Square digs before hopping on over to the nearby Copley Square Hotel in a tonier part of the Back Bay. The roll call of musicians who performed at Storyville is a formidable one: Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and perhaps most significantly, Billie Holiday.

July 17 marks the 60th anniversary of Holiday’s death, which means she has now been dead 16 years longer than she lived. When I walk past this Pizzeria Uno, I think of her often, in part because her most famous number was “Strange Fruit,” a song that burrows into your soul with its imagery of the South’s awful crop—black bodies swinging from trees—and because Boston has a longstanding reputation for not being the most inclusive of cities.

That’s never been my experience in the whole of my life here. But still I think of Holiday, and of her very last recordings, on my walks through Kenmore Square. Those recordings were made in late April 1959 at Storyville; never mind that the club was in Copley Square by then. The surviving tape is courtesy of a radio broadcast. It features six songs: “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Willow Weep for Me,” “When Your Love Has Gone,” “Billie’s Blues (I Love My Man),” “Too Marvelous for Words,” and “Lover Come Back to Me.”

Billie Holiday at Storyville, Boston, April 24, 1959
Billie Holiday at Storyville, Boston, April 24, 1959 (photo: Mel Levine)

In Holiday’s vocal prime of the late 1930s and early 1940s, her voice was suggestive of cracked chinaware, if chinaware could sing. Ella Fitzgerald could bellow, but with a bijou polish, emitting finesse and power. Holiday never operated that way, nor could she. Other female jazz singers were sirens, blues belters, torch-y balladeers, seductresses, but Holiday was the external, sonic deployment of that voice in your head that is always under the top layer of your conscious thoughts, guiding and directing you, asking the questions that tend not to occur to us at first, without deeper contemplation. Were this voice a Disney character, it would be Jiminy Cricket, but Jiminy Cricket with the understanding that no wish upon a star is going to part darkness from the personal night within. Not that her singing shirked hope; it is conceivably the most effulgent approach to the blues, because it refuses not to try and broach communication with you, no matter what is happening in the songs.

There are those (a minority) who love late-period Holiday recordings, there are those (most Holiday listeners) who hear nothing but wracked tragedy and the despoiling of her talents from about 1950 on. That last night in Boston finds her not in her cracked chinaware voice, but rather as if some porcelain had been slipped into a plastic baggie, smashed with a hammer, and made to sing. Is it sad? She’s at the end, if you know the biographical details, so yes in that way, but not in the larger sense, I would say. Singing is a two-part venture. There is the quality, the timbral reality of your voice, which includes its tone and range of notes and dynamics; and then there is how that voice is utilized in terms of phrasing, the shading of meaning, thespian-like impartation, the bridge of human touch between performer and hearer.

As the timbral quality of Holiday’s voice deteriorated, the quality of her genius for communication was made anew, repeatedly. I would advance this argument: As flat-out sound, she never had much of a voice. Some jazz musicians—Freddie Hubbard, Herschel Evans, Grant Green, Ella—just have that perfect tone. Not that Holiday’s voice was rebarbative, but it was always more about the meaning she evinced than beauty beheld in the play of vocal cords. So when her voice went to shit, to be a little vulgar, I don’t think it really mattered. She knew more, she sang better, she meant more. She certainly meant more to me.

At times on this final airshot, Holiday is gamine-like, a sprite in the night, as when her enunciation of the word “stars” in “I Only Have Eyes for You” makes it sound like she has a mouthful of crepuscular light. Her voice is not lithe, nor is it bogged down, falling under the music like a mooring device. When she wants to skip across the beat, she does it. The excellent Mal Waldron is on piano, and Holiday pitches some of her notes toward his bop-stride chords, a duet of musical mimetics, as though this love letter of a song were going back and forth between the two principals of the relationship, despite the male lover remaining off stage. Holiday was a dialogic singer until the last.

On “Billie’s Blues,” she sings in a higher register, flirting with warbling in certain moments. The singer details how her man treats her like a dog—literally—but she digs it. This is a theme in Holiday’s work, despite her recent posterization as a feminist icon. But there’s something more complex going on here: a streak of individuality carved out with extremes.

Billie Holiday at Storyville, Boston, April 24, 1959
Billie Holiday at Storyville, Boston, April 24, 1959 (photo: Mel Levine)

Holiday’s output is a variant of social realism, but with a dose of hyperbole. In other songs, she’ll sing that it’s no business of yours if her man wallops her. This can be shocking to 2019 ears, especially from someone like this, who’s always summarized inconclusively and inaccurately by people who don’t listen to her. The salient, if not salubrious, point is that the singer of these songs is the decider of her own directions. That’s why Holiday is empowering. The vulnerability is plain—she often even elects for an extreme denuding—but all choices are owned. Thus, the life is owned. If scabrous points have to be made to show just how important that is, then so be it. You might even say that late-period Holiday was the very sound of so be it.

Storyville, in its various locales, clearly meant something to Holiday. Back around Halloween 1951, at the Kenmore Square location, with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz in her band—which might have been as close as she got to reaching the same kind of divine musical symbiosis she had with Lester Young—she cut what I hold as the definitive version of “Strange Fruit.” The song was never exactly jaunty; it’s the rare piece of art that began life as a kind of social chronicle and became a terror tale, a ghost story, a work in which the past, present, and the future of evermore disembark and gather upon the same point. It’s every bit the rendezvous for the living and the dead that the final pages of Joyce’s Dubliners were. It’s also the ultimate protest song, the ultimate musical reckoning. It’s a lot of things.

This is the Cubist version of the song, the breaking down of the totality into constituent parts, the fracturing of sonic planar fields via the tale of things gone way, way wrong in Southern fields. Holiday never introduced songs like she did this one that night at Storyville. She says—not quite a boast, but certainly an assertion—that this song was written specifically for her. It’s like she’s presaging what her own intentions are going to be in singing it, for this is a song in which Holiday’s singing becomes not just the co-author, but the commanding authorial presence. It’s the “so be it” voice.

Cover of Billie Holiday's The Complete Storyville Performances
Cover of Billie Holiday’s The Complete Storyville Broadcasts, which collects all the 1950s Holiday live performances aired on radio from that club

In 1959, the year Billie Holiday died, Sam Cooke released an album of Holiday covers called Tribute to the Lady. He had a lot of Billie in him; he was more dulceted, you might say, tone-wise, but his understanding of impartment was born of the same place. At a sweaty Miami nightclub in 1963, he would feature a deconstruction of his own “You Send Me,” another work of musical Cubism. There is no way he could have heard this particular Holiday performance, but she had a way of putting things into the air—air that found Cooke and many others besides. Coltrane had his sheets of sound, and in what is now a Pizzeria Uno, Holiday had her strips of sound.

The song could not be played slower, you feel, and remain airborne, remain as sound. She is embedding it in heads, as patrons sip their drinks, and she’s going to take as long as she’s going to take. It’s the exact same singer behind the hyperbole of “Billie’s Blues,” the singer who owned her compunction, culpability, the direction of her gaze. Turn that gaze inward—harder, deeper, with peerless lenses—and you can then do the same going in the opposite direction. That’s the sound of this Halloween 1951 version of “Strange Fruit,” it’s the sound of the last recordings from April 1959, it’s the sound of late-period Billie Holiday, the sound I love, the sound I need, the sound I think we all need right now.

Thanks to Oren and Noam Levine, who graciously provided the photos of Billie Holiday at Storyville, taken by their father Mel Levine in 1959.