Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill by Jerry Dantzic & Grayson Dantzic

(Thames & Hudson)

Back in 1957, Decca Records assigned photojournalist Jerry Dantzic to photograph Billie Holiday for an album cover (see The Blues Are Brewin’), and Dantzic opted to go to Newark, N.J., where Holiday was scheduled to perform at the jazz club Sugar Hill. Holiday was only in her early 40s, and less than two years later she would die in a Manhattan hospital while under house arrest for a narcotics offense. Her tragic death has added a mystique to her persona as a troubled yet gifted artist, but her talents were so considerable that her sound remains sui generis in American culture.

Cover of Billie Holiday book
Cover of Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill by Jerry Dantzic

Holiday, likely influenced by Dantzic’s relationship with William Dufty (her friend and the co-author of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues), gave the photographer nearly unprecedented access at the club—before, during and after her performances. Dantzic also followed her around Newark and captured her on a visit to the Dufty family’s apartment in Manhattan. This book of about 100 images from six days in 1957 gives us a unique look at one of the greatest jazz artists in history.

If you’re a Holiday fan, it will be hard to resist seeking out this book that so candidly captures her late in her life and career. The images are intimate but not prurient. Too often fans want to see the flaws, the scars and wear-and-tear of a well-documented difficult life, as if those struggles alone defined Holiday. The book shows us much more.

The live shots, often overly grainy and roughly composed, aren’t nearly as compelling as the offstage photos in which Holiday is seen her putting on makeup, fussing with her pet Chihuahua, Pepi, having a drink and generally preparing to go onstage. There is another set of photos showing Holiday encountering fans on the street—including one that looks uncannily like Amy Winehouse—and we experience a warm and open Billie very different from the melancholy artist so often seen in photos. But the book’s most powerful images capture Holiday visiting the apartment of Dufty, his first wife, Maely Bartholomew, and their young son, Bevan, who was one of Holiday’s godchildren. Holiday spent the day with the family, helping to prepare a meal and generally reveling in the presence of the child. This is yet another aspect of the singer rarely seen or discussed—her love and appreciation of friends and their children.

A short section near the end of the book features a few images, including two color shots, from a live performance that Holiday gave five months later, at the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival. The foreword, by novelist Zadie Smith (noted author of White Teeth and On Beauty), written in a stream-of-consciousness style, is either a literary tour de force or poetic conceit. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge; suffice it to say, my disbelief wasn’t suspended.

The book was painstakingly compiled by Dantzic’s son Grayson. I assume he made the design choice to forego the white space so de rigueur with arty photo books; instead, the images here appear as wide as possible, and although it can make looking up the captions arduous, the rewards of seeing these often complex and dramatic images in large format more than make up for any inconvenience. Grayson’s notes reflect his obsessive documentation of his father’s work, and share his thorough research into the background details of the photos. I would have enjoyed learning more about Dantzic’s approach to photography and about his relationship with subjects like Holiday, but I’ll settle for this remarkable set of images of one of America’s greatest artists.

Read Ashley Kahn’s interviews with Jamie Cullum and Jose James about Billie Holiday.

Watch Billie Holiday perform “Fine and Mellow” from the Sound of Jazz TV program: