Saturday, December 16, 2006

Billie Holiday—a Biography for Students

Billie Holiday: a Biography
By Meg Greene
Greenwood Press (paper over board)

Drug abuse. Prostitution. Domestic violence. Not exactly the stuff of most books for young adults, but it is impossible to tell Billie Holiday’s life story without dealing with these issues. One of the merits of Meg Greene’s biography Billie Holiday is that she deals with the more provocative and salacious aspects of Holiday’s life matter-of-factly, without glamorizing them.

Greene is clearly a Holiday fan. However, she exaggerates things a tad when she writes: “Before she appeared on the scene, jazz singers rarely personalized their tunes. Only blues singers, such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Dinah Washington did not sound generic and interchangeable.” (p. x) How about arguably the most influential jazz singer of all time, Louis Armstrong; Ethel Waters, considered the evolutionary link between Bessie Smith and Holiday; or Ellington’s early, and some consider greatest, vocalist Ivie Anderson?

Greene gives the facts and circumstances of Holiday’s life straight, without much spin. She succinctly gives context as when explaining the circumstances which allowed famed producer John Hammond to arrange her first recording sessions. Greene explains:

“Hammond had come up with a plan in which the company could import titles from its British counterpart, English Columbia. The company, though selling to an English audience, often set up recording sessions in the United States. This way, Hammond could not only record American artists, but also have a ready-made market, as English audiences generally were far more interested in American jazz than were Americans. It did not hurt that the Depression had not hit England.” (p. 28)

One of the temptations to which Holiday biographers frequently succumb is fixating on the lurid details of her private life at the expense of her music. Greene, to her credit, does not make that mistake. She assesses Holiday’s periods for the Columbia, Commodore, and Verve labels, and discusses her work with the big bands of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Paul Whiteman. Of course, “Strange Fruit” is discussed in detail. She also discusses what some consider her last great album, Lady in Satin, explaining peoples’ love or hate attitude towards the LP:

“Many fans found the album too painful to listen to. It was as if Holiday was chronicling her life story, singing it in a voice that was worn out and used up. Ray Ellis’s arrangements did not help much; the background seems too lush, contrived, and artificial against the raw pain of Holiday’s voice. But others found the album to be as honest and real a collection of songs as Holiday was capable of producing.” (p. 105)

Ultimately, it was Holiday’s music for which scores of jazz fans adore her, not her drug problems or abusive relationships. While Meg Greene might be writing for a middle and high school audience, it is nice to see a biographer who keeps Holiday’s life in the proper perspective.