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'Billie Holiday' review: Shedding light on Lady Day

Portrait of Billie Holiday by Carl Van Vechten,

Portrait of Billie Holiday by Carl Van Vechten, taken March 23, 1949. Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection / Carl Van Vechten

BILLIE HOLIDAY: The Musician and the Myth, by John Szwed. Viking, 230 pp., $28.95.

Billie Holiday, born 100 years ago on April 7, is still very much with us. Last year, Audra McDonald won a Tony Award for her portrayal of the jazz singer in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," a show that interspersed autobiographical monologues with songs. Jazz singers continue to record Billie Holiday tributes, including Cassandra Wilson, whose "Coming Forth by Day," is released April 7. Even contestants on "American Idol" have crooned her songs for the television masses. Holiday's image -- the African-American woman and drug addict who poured her suffering into music -- endures. Like Frank Sinatra, whose centennial is also celebrated this year, Holiday is a cultural icon whose value is greater than the sum of her songs.

But how well do we really know Billie Holiday? She was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia to a teenage mother and absent father, grew up in Baltimore and was sexually assaulted at the age of 9. In Harlem, where her mother worked for a time as a prostitute, she began singing in nightclubs and was discovered at age 18 by producer John Hammond (who would later discover Bob Dylan). Her relationships with men were frequently unhappy and sometimes abusive; she drank and did drugs. Arrested and convicted of narcotics possession, she lost her license to perform in New York cabarets. She died in 1959, age 44, at Metropolitan Hospital in New York, under arrest once more for possession.

The legends about Billie abound. As John Szwed writes in his new book, "Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth": "All those who have attempted to write about her have discovered there are many Billie Holidays: one lively and joyful, another bitter and doomed to heartache; there is a Billie with a little girl's cry, and one with an older woman's growl. . . . Put fifty or sixty photos of her on a table and you will see a heavyset woman and a sylph in silk, an African American and an Asian, a saucy miss and a broken drunk, a perp in a mug shot and a smiling matron with a pet. In some pictures she's completely unrecognizable."

Szwed, who has written definitive biographies of jazz musicians Miles Davis and Sun Ra and folklorist Alan Lomax, takes a different tack here. As his subtitle suggests, he is interested in the gap between Holiday's public image and her artistic achievement. The book is really an extended essay or essays, with moments of sharp writing and insight, though the reader may wish that he lingered longer and explored more deeply in places.

In Part One, Szwed focuses on the "Myth," one certainly fueled by "Lady Sings the Blues," the unreliable autobiography she published with journalist William Dufty in 1956. (The 1972 movie of the same name with Diana Ross was also heavily fictionalized). Szwed acknowledges the factual liberties that Holiday took but believes she had a deeper mission: to show "how the stigmatized women who work as maids, singers, and prostitutes have their own values" and that "even among the lowest in society, characteristics such as strength, dignity, and the ability to survive should be seen as forms of virtue." Written at a time when she was denied work in Manhattan nightclubs, it was also a way to make money.

Part Two looks closely at the music, starting with the vaudeville minstrel tradition, the 19th century French torch song genre, and Holiday predecessors Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey and Mabel Mercer. Szwed is excellent on Billie's voice -- variously called "sad, olive-toned, whisky-hued, lazy, feline, smoky, unsentimental, weird," he writes -- and on her trademark techniques of "falling behind the beat, floating, breathing where it's not expected, scooping up notes and then letting them fall." He devotes ample space to the songs with which she is most closely identified: "Strange Fruit," "Gloomy Sunday," "God Bless the Child," "Don't Explain" and more.

"Billie Holiday: The Myth and the Musician" is not for readers unfamiliar with Billie Holiday. It presumes some knowledge of her life story and her records, and the reader who can listen along as Szwed describes her youthfully exuberant 1930s recordings or the ruined grandeur of her late "Lady in Satin" album will get more out of the book. It is not the last word on Billie, but a worthy addition to the bookshelf on this woman whose music has lost none of its enigmatic power.

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