The history of music in North America is in many ways entirely defined and directed by its roots in African culture. Such forms as Ragtime, Blues, Gospel, Jazz, R&B, Soul, Funk, Hip Hop, are just a few to mention. These musical traditions are as rich and powerful as any anywhere. Jazz has often been considered the ‘classical’ music of the US, though in his article ‘Don’t Call Jazz America’s Classical Music’, Jon Parles explores how this depiction takes away from the uniqueness and profound differences that make Jazz what it is. In the sense that Jazz, and the many other musical forms of African American tradition, are world renown, sophisticated, influential, and transcendent, it is true to compare it to European Classical Music. But their origins are deeply differentiated for, in Europe classical was an often elitist and aristocratic culture, whereas the music of North America arose from a disenfranchised people. Billie Holiday’s life perfectly reveals the kind of struggle and difficulty throughout American history in nurturing these musical forms to become how they are thought of today, revolutionary.
As a Black Women in the US growing up in the late 1910s, there was pretty much no possibility to avoid racism and tribulation. Her parentage and upbringing were complicated and inconsistent, with her father estranged and her mother working at a job which required her to be constantly travelling for long periods. Often skipping school at this time helped earn her an appearance in Juvenile court at age nine, from which she was sent to a Catholic reform institution. She started working at her mother’s restaurant shortly after that and had dropped-out of school by age 11. Her childhood was fraught with many other traumatic experiences, but when she finally discovered the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, a new hope and motivation in life appeared.
Her iconic voice and style was developed in the clubs of Harlem and slowly through recognition here and there she rose to prominence. Through her singing she was also able to reconnect with her father who was also a jazz musician. As she blossomed into one of the finest vocalists of her time, performing and touring with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the era, she still experienced many difficulties to do with racism and eventually her use of alcohol and drugs began to disrupt her career. Though her use of drugs was possibly pain management and a coping mechanism for all the past traumas, working stress, and racism, it created rifts. This was exacerbated through the many relationships she had with abusive men. Even after going to jail and experiencing several setbacks in her later career, she was still able to sell advanced-tickets for her return performance Carnegie Hall in record numbers.
Billie Holiday’s life was an ebb and flow between success and difficulty. The hope and inspiration she found through her early jazz influences was developed into a method of taking her pain and sorrow and creating joy out of it by singing it to others. From just a few of the difficulties that she experienced throughout life, most would become lost and disconsolate, unable to accomplish more than survival. Instead Holiday did what so many others of her Black brothers and sisters did, which was develop emancipation through creating music amongst other means. This tradition reaches all the way back to the Spirituals that slaves used as encouragement, inspiration, a carrying on and increasing of Continental African culture, as coded messages, as protest, and much more.
Her voice and songs were and are legendary, and she even became somewhat of a pop success outside of jazz, having her own solo shows, which was was uncommon in that period. Although she was honoured in her time for the many hits and standards, posthumously Billie Holiday has been awarded and honoured again and again for the lifetime of creating the Beautiful that her music and her story is. With perseverance and passion she became one of the most important and iconic jazz vocalists of her time and transcended the bounds of her vocation to become an inspiring historical figure for everyone. In this hopeful and resplendent way, she is remembered by millions.
Author: Jonathan M. Bessette