Exploring Billie’s Influence– A Conversation About Billie Holiday

Three of the reigning vocalists in jazz—NEA Jazz Masters Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves and Grammy Award winner Cassandra Wilson—join multiple Grammy-winning bassist and educator Christian McBride for an exploration of the musical and social influence of the incomparable Billie Holiday. Through the aegis of the 92Y, on the occasion of the new documentary Billie and in anticipation of a 2021 feature film by  Lee Daniels – The United States vs Billie Holiday.                                        These are three articulate, impassioned women – with opinions. 

Christian McBride: “Dee Dee let’s start with you. You’ve addressed Billie Holiday in many forms.” (Bridgewater played Holiday in Lady Day, written and directed by Stephen Stahl.)

Dee Dee Bridgwater: My Billie Holiday is a militant, an independent thinking woman ahead of her time; a victim of the time she was born into. I don’t consider her to be the drug-addled stereotype she’s become to the public. She was wry, fashionable…Billie suffered silently. That she chose to sing “Strange Fruit” after Congress told her not to speaks volumes. They say she od’d at Bellevue. What they don’t say is that the people who brought her the gardenia with opium in it were two undercover agents. Then we were truly second class people without the pretense we have now. I don’t know who would’ve survived.         

Cassandra Wilson: Like most jazz musicians, she was an outlier. I focus on her musicianship. I don’t think her life is anybody’s business. People in our genre have always had problems. Billie had universality…

Diane Reeves: It wasn’t until later that I learned the instrument is one thing, the voice another. For a long time, I never touched “Strange Fruit” because it was something she was living. She created community wherever she went. Her voice was emotionally clear and palatable.

The host asks his guests about biopics that often take liberties with people’s lives. “I came to learn about Billie Holiday by way of Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). Not until I got older did I listen to Billie herself. What myths do you hope are upheld or squashed in the upcoming feature?”

DDB: It was a star vehicle for Diana Ross, a glamorized version.

Diane Reeves was in high school at the time. She recalls her entire multi-generational household hated it. Cassandra Wilson adds, “I absolutely adore Diana Ross, but Dee Dee is right. For one thing Louis McKay was abusive/violent (in real life). He was a mob enforcer. I’d like to see a film that focuses on the business side of Billie’s life. We rarely hear about treatment, royalties, contracts, her husband as manager, maintaining balance.” Each vocalist has chosen a song.

CW:  I chose “Billie’s Blues.” I love her original material. She was not just a vocalist, but also a musician, a songwriter. I believe she wrote more than we know and her name didn’t end up on the material.” We listen. McBride and Bridgewater grin and sway. Wilson’s head shifts, she looks down. Reeves sits still, eyes closed. I’ve been your slave, baby/Ever since I’ve been your babe…But before I’ll be your dog/I’ll see you in your grave… I ain’t good lookin/And my hair ain’t curled…But my mother, she gave me something/It’s going to carry me through this world… (A terrific recording – Live from The Metropolitan Opera.)

DR: She’s just telling her whole story. I know who I am cause my mama made me this way. DDB: What struck me was how she messed around with her phrasing and the musicians responding, the matter-of-factness, the ease. It took me a long time to get there.

Both Diane Reeves and Dee De Bridgewater chose “Strange Fruit.,” the song most associated with Holiday. We listen. All four participants are motionless, grave.

Bridgewater (To Billie with Love From Dee Dee Bridgewater) and Wilson (Coming Forth by Day) have recorded Billie Holiday collections. Bridgewater won’t sing “Strange Fruit” live. “It brings up too many bad memories of our suffering. What struck me is that she didn’t let her emotion get in our way.”

 “Strange Fruit,” written by Jewish-American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol, compares lynching victims to the fruit of trees. Because of its power, the song would always end Holiday’s act – the stage dark, a spotlight on her face, then blackout. Her record label, Columbia, refused to record it. Instead, in 1939, she was given a one-session contract release to record it for Commodore (with a piano introduction by Sonny White). It eventually sold a million copies. The early civil rights movement called the song a declaration of war:

Southern trees bearing a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is a fruit for the crow to pluck
For the rain to wither, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, a known racist, said that drugs caused Black people to overstep their place in society and that jazz singers created the devil’s music. When he forbid her to perform “Strange Fruit,” Holiday refused. Anslinger set up a sting during which the artist bought heroin from his agents resulting in a 1 ½ year prison sentence. “It was called ‘The United States of America Versus Billie Holiday’, and that’s just the way it felt.” (Billie Holiday) When she was released in 1948, authorities refused to reissue a cabaret performer license. That part of her career was over.

CW: Though I’ve recorded it twice, it’s not a song that’s easy to sing every night.
DDB: It’s sacred in a way.
DR: The biggest reason they came after her was this song.                        DDB: She was successful touring Europe. They couldn’t break her.                                                                   

CW: I think of the hunting of Billie Holiday. “Strange Fruit” is about southern racism, but southern racists didn’t have anything to do with the revoking of her cabaret card.
DR: Some people feel they have to keep us divided, underpaid, and undereducated…
DDB: In the stereotypical vision of our musical community, she’s one of many martyrs.

Though discussion centers on Holiday, bigotry and suppression are undercurrents in everyone’s comments. Musicians Sam Cooke and Nina Simone are invoked. During the era, when Black voices stopped preaching brotherhood and started reporting facts, music got more aggressive. Retaliation followed.

Sam Cooke was a persecuted artist/activist in the 1950s: Then I go to my brother/And I say brother help me please/But he winds up knockin’ me/Back down on my knees, oh…A Change Is Gonna Come” In 1964, he invited a woman to his hotel room. She robbed him. When she ran, he chased her and was shot by the hotel manageress. It turned out the manageress was the woman’s pimp. No investigation was ever carried out and since the two women involved were African American, the police and FBI closed the case. Cooke died in the hotel lobby.

Artist/activist Nina Simone was boycotted for her song “Mississippi Goddamn.” Alabama’s gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam…An arrest warrant was issued for unpaid taxes (a protest against the country’s involvement with the Vietnam War). She fled to Liberia, Barbados, Switzerland and eventually ended up in Paris.

Representing “the fun, hip, jazz side of Holiday,” we next listen to “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law.” You don’t have to have a hanker/To be a broker or a banker/No siree, just simply be/My mother’s son-in-law…Bass and snapped fingers make this light and bright. DR: There’s a collection of songs on Verve where she does “Comes Love.” I’d put it on loud. We’d dance and sing. We listen to the provocative, playful rendition.

McBride asks the ladies what made Holiday’s relationship to saxophonist Lester Young “such a good fit.” The two had a deeply intimate, yet purportedly platonic relationship. He nicknamed her “Lady Day. She called him “Prez,” because “he was the greatest.” (BH) The vocalist admitted she wanted to sing in his improvisational style, while he often studied lyrics before playing a song. They met in 1934, became fast friends, performed, drank, smoked together, and boosted one another’s morale. Both were vulnerable and introspective. CW: They were twin flames, amazing energies that ended up on the planet at the same time.

CM: AS I bass player, I take from other musicians. What did you take from Billie?

DDB: I try not to take anything. When I was dating Cecil (pianist Cecil Taylor), I was 19. He introduced me to Billie. I said she can’t sing, she doesn’t have any range.

DR: When I first heard her, I didn’t like her either, but I learn from all of them. Eventually, you find your own voice, refine and respect it. Sarah (Sarah Vaughan) taught me to use my instrument, Ella (Ella Fitzgerald), joy and resistance, Bette (Bette LaVette), to co-create. You can be anything you want to be, but you can’t be me.

CW: Whenever someone complains about her vocal range, I think of her emotional range. It’s jazz coloratura, like bending outside of the frame.

DR: She had the ability to make a story cinematic. Her “Autumn in New York” is like no one else’s. Billie made me tear lyrics apart and find emotional subtext.

CM: That was a beautiful and succinct way to close the show.

Opening Photo Courtesy of 92Y: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Christian McBride

Exploring Billie’s Influence: https://www.92y.org/event/exploring-billie-s-influence.

Also: January 12pm. FREE: Billie Holiday Listening Party 360: Essential recordings and the recordings they influenced with WBGO’s Lezlie Harrison https://www.92y.org/event/billie-holiday-listening-party-360.aspx

AND: January 24 3pm: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”– Discussion with David Margolick, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Robert O’Mealy $15.00 https://www.92y.org/event/holiday-s-strange-fruit

About Alix Cohen (964 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.