musicology #473


2LegendsClash II #9

(Billie Holiday – Big Stuff)

penultimate cut of the two legends…feels like the time has come to move on up.

1946 cut on the Decca label. Recorded in New York on March 13th. Featuring Joe Guy, Joe Springer, Tiny Grimes, Billy Taylor and Kelly Martin.

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13 thoughts on “musicology #473

  1. The penultimate cut. The last “Lady Day” slice!!!

    Here goes. My Lords. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Respected scholars, and fellow musicologists… The case for Billie Holiday.

    Billie Holiday. Why was she such a seminal influence on jazz and popular singing? Why did (and still do) grown men and women weep at the sound of her voice? What was it she had that (questionably) no-one else had. It wasn’t just her deeply personal/intimate approach to her work or her ground-breaking vocal style of manipulating phrasing and tempo. No, there was something else, something almost otherworldly, something unfathomable.

    Well, walking home through the snow the other evening I believe I fathomed the unfathomable…

    First, an aside. Have you ever wondered at the muffling/deadening/softening sound effect of snow, especially in open spaces? Don’t know about you, but I find it most welcome, comforting even. It muffles the relentless, grinding sound of commerce/capitalism.

    Anyway, politics aside, back to Billie Holiday. There I was trundling through the snow, pondering things big and small in time to the rhythmic, muffled crunch-crunch of my lonely footsteps.

    I was walking across the park that separates the part of the city I live in from the rest. It was a crispy-clear winters evening. The snow had stopped falling and all around me, as far as the eye could see through the rapidly fading evening light, lay a pristine blanket of pure whiteness. The sight was magnificent; the stillness massive.

    Then, all of a sudden, a bird – a nightingale I think – started to sing and it’s song pierced the stillness. But the sound, instead of being deadened by the snow, was boosted/magnified somehow… and it didn’t sound unusual or abnormal either. In fact it sounded just perfect!

    The nightingale’s song stopped me in my tracks ( a habit of mine, I know). Two thoughts hit me at the same time. The one i.e. here’s the analogy/metaphor I’d been searching for to describe Billie Holiday’s voice, though good didn’t get far because the second thought hit me like a train wiping out all else. What mashed/hit me was I realised what it was that sounded so stunningly surreal the nightingale was singing and thereby what that “something else unfathomable” Billie Holiday’s voice has/had.

    The little bird was singing it’s own elegy. There in that beautiful winter snow-scape the nightingale was freezing to death while singing it’s own requiem/lament. And I was listening to it’s last song; an obituary.

    Every time you listen to Billie Holiday it’s the same. Every time she sings it’s something so precious and fragile and yet so strong and powerful. It’s like the man said “she never had a big voice-it was small… like a bell that rang and went a mile”…. Amen!

    In summary…. Yes, there is good, there is better and there is the best. There, of course, is also great, greater and the greatest. And then – finally – there is Billie Holiday… a transcendent genius.

    Without wishing to take anything away from the truly “great” Dinah Washington, I rest the case for Billie Holiday. Thank you.

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  2. Cor!!.never heard that one before, that was terrific! Id just made me mind up that Dinah had edged it, but having heard Billie Holiday sing this one I’m not so sure…thats what I call a Soundclash theres not a fag paper between ’em.

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  3. loved the way all the instruments played and her voice blended to produce a fabulous track yet none of the various strands seemed to be competing to be the best part……..

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  4. quality..part of the inspiration for throwing down the two legends side by side was that for me the pair of ’em BOTH have that transcendent quality of which you speak. On the one hand there’s Billie whose phrasing set the tone for all who followed, (although as mentioned it was ‘Gatemouth’ who originated the voice as instrument style), and then there’s the Queen Of The Blues, Dinah who ‘tore the arse’ out of almost every song she sung…in purely technical terms there can’t be any doubt that Dinah has the voice. As for the etheral qualities, for me they both have it in equal amounts. True Billie had ‘ a small voice that rang a mile’ but Dinah had a large one that rang at least as far. Both were very strong but also extremley vulnerable because they wore their hearts in their songs.

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  5. “Both were very strong but also extremley vulnerable because they wore their hearts (on their sleeves) in their songs.”

    …hear, hear to that!

    An honest question.

    would you measure, lump (call it what you will) Ella Fitzgerald, Della Reese, Sarah Vaughn – to name just three, in the same category as one, the other, or both (equally) of these two musical giants?

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  6. Sorry, I just can’t let it go………….

    (…..) Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times served as narrator in the Carnegie Hall concerts, taking position at a lectern to the left of the stage. Interspersed among Holiday’s songs, Millstein read aloud four lengthy passages from her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues.
    He later wrote:
    “The narration began with the ironic account of her birth in Baltimore – ‘Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three’ – and ended, very nearly shyly, with her hope for love and a long life with ‘my man’ at her side.”
    Millstein continued, “It was evident, even then, that Miss Holiday was ill. I had known her casually over the years and I was shocked at her physical weakness. Her rehearsal had been desultory; her voice sounded tinny and trailed off; her body sagged tiredly. But I will not forget the metamorphosis that night. The lights went down, the musicians began to play and the narration began. Miss Holiday stepped from between the curtains, into the white spotlight awaiting her, wearing a white evening gown and white gardenias in her black hair. She was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling. And when the first section of narration was ended, she sang – with strength undiminished – with all of the art that was hers. I was very much moved. In the darkness, my face burned and my eyes (?). I recall only one thing. I smiled.”

    Nat Hentoff of Down Beat magazine, who attended this same Carnegie Hall concert, wrote of her performance:

    “Throughout the night, Billie was in superior form to what had sometimes been the case in the last years of her life. Not only was there assurance of phrasing and intonation; but there was also an outgoing warmth, a palpable eagerness to reach and touch the audience. And there was mocking wit. A smile was often lightly evident on her lips and her eyes as if, for once, she could accept the fact that there were people who did dig her.”
    Hentoff continued, “The beat flowed in her uniquely sinuous, supple way of moving the story along; the words became her own experiences; and coursing through it all was Lady’s sound – a texture simultaneously steel-edged and yet soft inside; a voice that was almost unbearably wise in disillusion and yet still childlike, again at the centre. The audience was hers from before she sang, greeting her and saying good-bye with heavy, loving applause. And at one time, the musicians too applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, undeniably the best and most honest jazz singer alive.”

    (acknowledgements wikipedia)

    a ticket, a ticket, my Kingdom for a ticket to that concert!!

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    1. There’s no denying Billie Holiday’s quality..like I said, for me, there are only two female vocalists who ‘battle’ for the top spot and Billie is one of them. If you favour Billie then that’s your prerogative but on what grounds are you basing it? not looking to blow my own musicology trumpet but I have 465 Billie Holiday cuts and 300 Dinah cuts and having listened to EVERY one of them I have to say that Dinah takes the crown. From her first song to her last she tore the arse out of almost every song she recorded…whereas there’s no denying that Billie didn’t.

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  7. “tearing the arse out of a song” is not the de facto, or single, standard to this “clash”.

    Ask any number of people interested enough to listen blindfolded to either chanteuse and then identify who it was singing and I bet you the majority would recognise Billie singing but not Dinah!

    That, by the way, is also no de facto measurement of talent!

    For me, I’ll leave it to Nat Hentoff to have the last word. “(….) The beat flowed in her uniquely sinuous, supple way of moving the story along; the words became her own experiences; and coursing through it all was Lady’s sound – a texture simultaneously steel-edged and yet soft inside; a voice that was almost unbearably wise in disillusion and yet still childlike (…..)”

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