With Billie recites Holiday’s life from memory
by Jonathan Frey
The year 1959 was one of jazz’s most auspicious years. The all-time most popular album, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, was released; three jazz legends, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Bill Evans, issued their defining statements— Change of the Century , Giant Steps, and Portrait in Jazz , respectively; and the Dave Brubeck Quartet released Time Out , from which the first million-selling jazz instrumental single emerged.
That year was also one of jazz’s most tragic. On March 15, tenor saxophonist Lester Young died at age of 50, and four months later, on July 17, singer Billie Holiday died at 44. Both made profound contributions to the music, suffered the consequences of racial politics and substance abuse, and succumbed prematurely, their passings’ proximity perhaps symbolic of their unique intimacy.
As recalled by pianist Jimmy Rowles in Julia Blackburn’s With Billie (Pantheon, $25), “They were like goldfish or something. And they went through their little trip. They had the funniest way of looking at each other. It was like brother and sister, but another thing…they’d just touch and get their guns off and it was cool, until the next time they’d bump into each other around the club…like accidental joy. And Billie was happy all the time.” With Billie captures these and other reminiscences in a volume both touching and contradictory.
Born Eleanor on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Billie Holiday’s mother was 19-year-old servant and prostitute Sarah Julia Harris; her father was 16-year-old banjo player, Clarence Holiday. Her early years were spent largely separated from her mother, raised in Baltimore by several family acquaintances. At age 10 she spent 18 months in reform school for truancy, and at age 11 she was raped by a neighbor, which led to more reform school. By 14, she’d joined her mother in a New York City whorehouse. At 15, after a whorehouse raid and five months on Welfare Island, she began singing at a club called Mexico’s, changing her name to Billie Holiday.
These and other biographical milestones, summarily listed in chapter four, form the backdrop to With Billie . Blackburn’s primary focus is mining the research of a previous Holiday biographer, Linda Kuehl, who interviewed over 150 of Holiday’s friends and acquaintances in the 1970s. Failing in her attempt to construct a unified account, Kuehl committed suicide in 1979 for reasons perhaps unrelated to her literary endeavors.
She left behind a trove of recorded memory, which Blackburn resolves to present essentially on its own: “I decided this book must be a documentary in which people are free to tell their own stories about Billie and it doesn’t matter if the stories don’t fit together, or even if sometimes they seem to be talking about a completely different woman…. Of course it is not possible to disentangle an absolute truth about who Billie was or how she lived, but at least we can listen with our own ears to the voices of the people who knew her, and then we can make our own decisions about what to believe and what not to believe.”
What follows is a cacophony of voices, a kaleidoscope of names, relationships and conflicting Holiday recollections: Skinny ‘Rim’ Davenport, pimp (“nice, pleasant girl…and she wasn’t too fast and didn’t like to hustle around”); Mary ‘Pony’ Kane, teen acquaintance and prostitute (“she wanted who she wanted and they mostly had someone else”); Bobby Tucker, Billie’s pianist in the ‘40s (“she could look like any of her pictures…and on every one she looked different”); Tallulah Bankhead, actress and adulthood friend (“she is essentially a child at heart whose troubles have made her psychologically unable to cope,” in a letter on Billie’s behalf to J. Edgar Hoover); Carl Drinkard, Billie’s pianist in the ‘50s (“she was a pathological liar…and she’d tell a story so many times a certain way that she’d begin to believe it herself”); Memry Midgett, acquaintance and cocktail pianist (“typical of the kind of person that needs punishment”); Elisabeth Hardwick, writer/critic (“one for whom the word changeling was invented”); Alice Vrbsky, Billie’s secretary (“people were using her all the time, but she never learnt to use them”).
Such recollections create of Holiday’s life a palimpsest: the facts of her life overwritten by the succeeding judgments of friends and acquaintances, yet again overwritten by her own unmatched gift— thankfully accessible today on dozens of CDs—to embody the essence of a musical story. Each is an inexact representation, a biased re-imagining, of a singer whose emergence was as unlikely as the inevitability of her fall, interrupted only occasionally by moments of accidental joy.