Book review : The greatest woman of them all

The Guardian

I think it is arguable that jazz is essentially a vocal art. It began with field songs and then ensembles of instrumentalists improvising in a vocal style, getting new sounds out of trumpets

and clarinets and trombones. Without doubt jazz has been a male domain; there are no women in the top 10 of the main instrumental ranks - trumpet, sax, piano, trombone, drums. But the two greatest singers in jazz are undisputedly Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. If my vocal theory holds true then it would follow that Billie is the greatest jazz musician of all time. Her immense emotional range has never been equalled and she seems to be the singer that all other singers use as a bench-mark. On top of this she possessed a unique ability as a catalyst for the musicians who accompanied her. To my mind they never played better than when they were with her. Julia Blackburn’s book gives a far more complete idea of Holiday as an artist than anything else I have read. Her music, if you love it as I do, speaks for itself. What the book does is create a context for that music, which sent me back to her songs with a new understanding of what I was hearing.

Often books about jazz musicians make the mistake of over-focusing on the music. Blackburn is more interested in Billie as a person. The stories of betrayal and abuse from men and managers and the police are devastating. She was jailed on the corrupt word of her own manager, Joe Glazer, a gangster who also ran Louis Armstrong’s career. In fact such a picture of crooked dealing in the jazz world emerges that you are amazed that any of the great stars survived. Billie is the only singer that I can think of who never recorded anything remotely cheesy. She always remained true to some kind of idea about her material that for me puts her up there with Parker and Coltrane and Lester Young.Her career seems to fall into three phases. The early stuff with small bands, with brilliant musicians and pianist Wilson ever present as a catalyst. These tracks contain some breath-taking gems, examples of the art of brevity and understatement. Her ability to turn the banal into the sublime was a form of musical alchemy unsurpassed to this day. “Me, Myself and I” concludes with a sublime duet with Lester Young. Her second period was in the 1940s, when she was with Decca and was accompanied by bigger bands. I’m not so crazy about this stuff, but it’s good. The last period is very profound. The sessions that Norman Granz was responsible for are extraordinary. There was a time when jazz critics were dismissive of the Verve sessions, saying that her voice had gone, she had no range and so on. To me she seems incapable of singing a bad note or delivering a shallow rendition of a song. The book doesn’t deal with her music much and I think this was a relief for me. Most people who read it will already have some idea of her music already. Aside from the introduction by Blackburn, the bulk of the book is taken up with transcribed interviews from men and women who knew Billie at different times in her life. Pimps from Baltimore who encountered her as a teenage prostitute; various musicians who accompanied her at different points of her career; a woman who worked as her assistant; her lawyer; the narcotics agent, a black man who feels remorse because he was also a fan and knew that there was injustice in her arrest and harassment. Of course everyone has their own slant on Billie, but what is so strong about this collection of memoirs is that the sum total of it all feels like a genuine portrait. It’s distressing to discover that she seemed to invite physical violence from her male partners - her last husband, Louis McKay

“managed to knock Billie right across the street with a single blow of his fist”. A manager known as John Levy was also extremely violent towards her: “I remember one time we went to her room and John Levy the pimp had just left and she said ‘I can’t go to work tonight, John beat the hell out of me’.”

“For Billie her manager must be her man or her husband. And she had to have a man who once in a while beat on her. In other words I gotta have a man that is a man, and I gotta have a man that keeps reminding me of that.” (With Billie by Julia Blackburn, 352pp, Cape)