Category Archives: Jazz

A Mighty Fine Line

CoverRoots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg, Faber & Faber, 2017

Imagine a genre in popular music in which the most famous band is made up entirely of high school kids with virtually no musical experience. Now imagine that this band only ever plays a handful of gigs, never releases any records, and disappears after a few months. Then imagine that the genre more or less disappears from the public imagination while the band changes it name and becomes a cornerstone of popular culture. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Or maybe it does if you’re talking about skiffle music and a band called The Quarry Men aka The Beatles.

But let’s try another scenario. It’s 1954 and a group of young musicians are struggling to finish a recording session. One of them, the guitar player, picks up his guitar and starts mucking around with an old blues song. The producer hears something he likes and asks him to play the song again, this time with the band. The result is, in today’s parlance, a game changer. Popular music takes a sharp turn. The cultural landscape of the entire nation shifts.

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Pre Fab skifflers

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Elvis, Scotty, and Bill messing around with Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s That’s Alright Mama and managing to invent rockabilly. But in the same week, far away in England, an almost identical scenario took place. In this case, the guitarist was Lonnie Donegan and the song was Rock Island Line. Rockabilly and Skiffle, distant cousins, born within hours of each other. Why? History is where geography and chronology meet. What was happening in Memphis that spawned rockabilly? What was happening in London that tossed up skiffle? The music historian, Peter Gurlanick, provides the answer to the former in his recent biography of Sam Philips. In a new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, Billy Bragg – yes, that Billy Bragg – tells the lesser known story of the latter.

I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that rock and roll historians need to start talking about jazz and that jazz historians need to find a place for rock and roll. Not long ago, I had another look at The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book that I read endlessly as a teenager. The early chapters make a lot of noise about blues and country but seem to skim over jazz. Duke Ellington, it should be recalled, always regarded rock and roll as a form of jazz. And he liked it! One of the many intriguing points about skiffle is that its basis wasn’t in folk or country but in trad jazz.

The English trad jazz story is itself fascinating and Bragg does a great job telling it. It all started with a record collector named Bill Colyer who went off to the army in the 1940s and came back to find his little brother Ken listening to his records and playing guitar. Colyer’s records, and this is critical, were a mix of early New Orleans stuff like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, along with people like Blind Blake. In the mind of these fans, blues was at the heart of the jazz they loved so why wouldn’t they listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Naturally, they recognised that rural blues artists, songsters, and jugbands like Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers used different instruments but to them it was all part of the same story.

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“No Leadbelly, No Lonnie Donegan. No Lonnie Donegan, No Beatles” – George Harrison

When Ken Colyer and similarly inclined folks like Chris Barber began to play early jazz live, they broke up their sets with ‘breakdowns’ where they would pick up guitars and play songs by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Lonnie Johnson (an influential musician who deserves some kind of revival). Robert Johnson had yet to be rediscovered at this stage, as incredible as that seems. The breakdown sets allowed them to rest their tired embouchures and introduce other songs to their audiences. As so often happens, the other thing became the thing. These sideshows brought people like Lonnie Donegan and Alexis Korner out front with their guitars. As rock and roll landed on the shores of England, guys out front with guitars looked like money to the boys on Denmark Street. The age of skiffle had arrived.

Why didn’t they just call it blues? Billy Bragg addresses this in the book. Apparently, when asked for a name for the members of his brother’s band that had just recorded some guitar based music – Bill Colyer said, ‘The Ken Colyer Skiffle Band’. Skiffle is an old American word for rent party so the association with good times and gutbucket blues is there. But apparently he just couldn’t bring himself to use the word ‘blues’ to describe English music. It offended his sense of authenticity. I wonder what he thought of the Stones’ first record.

Speaking of The Stones, did you catch the name Alexis Korner back there? Yes, it’s the same guy whose Blues Incorporated band featured a drummer called Charlie Watts with guest stars, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. He began his musical career replacing Lonnie Donegan in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and was an architect of the skiffle sound. Later, it was his collaborations with Cyril Davies that laid the foundations for British blues. Now that’s a career!

Billy Bragg’s point in this book is devastatingly simple and very difficult to dispute. By 1964, British acts dominated the Billboard charts in America. From The Beatles through to Billy J Kramer, every one of these acts had begun as a skiffle band. All except Petula Clark. She didn’t start as a skiffle band. Bragg’s contention is that when Lonnie Donegan had a big hit with Rock Island Line, a whole bunch of kids were hit by two revelations.

The first was that a lack of talent didn’t disqualify you from music glory. This isn’t to say that Donegan wasn’t talented but he played three chords on guitar and told his story in a voice that would have sounded untrained and raw to kids raised on crooners. It was, as Billy says several times, a similar phenomenon to punk. No suburban kid with a guitar aspired to form a band like ELO. The Clash’s music, on the other hand, sounded like the kind of noise you and your friends could aspire to making without being doomed to certain failure. Of course Jeff Lynne of ELO was himself one of those kids who saw Lonnie Donegan on television and thought, ‘I can do that!’ So there you go.

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The other revelation was that English kids could sing American songs. This is significant because without this understanding, it is unlikely that the British blues boom would have occurred in the same manner. It was as though Lonnie Donegan gave a whole generation permission to sing whatever they wanted to sing. And, of course, British blues became a genre in itself that, in turn, shaped the future of American blues.

It was observations like this that Billy Bragg caused a minor storm with an article in The Guardian about skiffle in 2013. He was trying to suggest that ‘Americana’ music could be traced back to England. His evidence had to do with The Animals’ decision to record House of the Rising Sun and the impact this had on Bob Dylan. The real point he was making was that skiffle has been unfairly written out of rock and roll history. The article was typical Bragg fare, earnest and provocative.

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Lonnie and Buddy get along better than Billy and Pokey

Nonetheless, this earnestness provoked Pokey Lafarge, and he took Billy Bragg to task in a Ted talk. He said something to the tune of: “Don’t let people like Billy Bragg tell us that our music came from Britain.” Billy replied on social media that he had said no such thing. At the Womadelaide Festival of 2014, Billy approached Pokey backstage and suggested a beer and chat. Pokey, still affronted, turned him down. Billy then suggested that they have an exchange of views in print. Pokey sourly walked away, leaving Billy and his olive branch to wilt in the South Australian heat.

Billy Bragg is an old punk rock warrior and a sort of George Orwell style English patriot. Pokey, on the other hand, sounds like he needs to update his manners software.  He also seems to have missed the deeper irony of the argument. The musical exchange between the UK and Ireland and America is ancient. The ‘old timey’ music that makes up some of Pokey’s repertoire can be traced back to the Ulster Scots and others who arrived in America in the late 18th, early 19th century. To Pokey and everyone else, I recommend the book, Wayfaring Strangers by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr. It’s a brilliant antidote to any overly nativist ideas about music history.

 

43a40029fc06b1d2a65299b7dcb44934If you’ve never listened to skiffle, Billy presents the genre in great detail, picking out the notable from the forgettable. Ever wondered about the song ‘Maggie Mae’ on The Beatles Let It Be album? The original was the biggest hit of a Liverpool outfit called The Vipers. One of the issues for skiffle bands in the studio was the tendency for older producers to top up their sound with strings and other embellishments. The Vipers, fortunately, found a young producer who correctly noted that their rawness was part of their appeal. He simply recorded them, live on the floor. That young producer would use a similar strategy with another band from Liverpool a couple of years later. His name was George Martin.

This is a top read. Billy Bragg is a very capable writer who has done an enormous amount of research. He covers a lot of ground here and, setting skiffle in context, he has provided a comprehensive history of British popular music, in general, between 1945 and 1960. This is also a social history that made for very interesting reading as the British election unfolded. Skiffle, the rise of rock and roll, John Osborne and the Angry Young Men, Pop Art, and the CND movement are all part of this story. And Billy Bragg, as his fans know, has exactly the right voice for the job.

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Teasers: A possible explanation of the line, ‘Look at those cavemen go’ from David Bowie’s Life on Mars; the possibility that this book will get you listening to British trad jazz. It’s good stuff. Ken Colyer, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk! Legends!

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry recently collaborated on an album called Shine A Light. They recorded the whole thing live in railway stations and hotels as they traveled southwest from Chicago to LA on trains. Great album to listen to while reading the book!

 

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Don’t Mean a Thing…

gioia-cover-How To Listen To Jazz by Ted Gioia, Basic Books, 2016

I like it when writers recommend music. Right now, I’m listening to Nicole Mitchell. I found her name on a list of contemporary jazz musicians at the back of Ted Gioia’s new book How To Listen To Jazz. She was the only one with ‘flute’ beside her name so I was curious.

Sounds good, so far. I’m hearing stringed instruments, Mitchell’s flute, and some extraordinary bass work holding it all together. The music sounds, to my ears, vaguely North African but there are blue notes all over the place. The next song sounds like what I now know to be ‘Hard Bop’ – more on this later.

Viola solo!

Towards the end of How to Listen to Jazz, Ted Gioia quotes Whitney Baillet’s description of the form as the ‘sound of surprise.’ That might be as close as anyone is ever going to come to describing jazz. But then, this might be true of all art. A great painting changes the way you see the world the same way a great book might change your mind about something. The first time you heard Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo in Little Wing, it was a surprise. So what makes jazz surprises so special? I think it goes back to the description. Jazz doesn’t have elements of surprise. It is the surprise. As Gioia points out, no one goes to a classical concert to be surprised. Amazed, challenged, intrigued maybe but perhaps not surprised. I can’t decide what I think about rock and roll. It’s there but there is a distinct tension in jazz between the structure and the possibilities that might be unique. No wonder Jean Paul Sartre liked jazz. If Gioia is right, there is no more existential music.

Ted Gioia is the author of many worthy books on music. I came across his study of Delta blues a few years ago in the library at work. I thought I was in for yet another retelling of the Robert Johnson story with special guest stars. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He provides a plausible chronology and some of the most intelligent commentary I have ever read on the subject. I was surprised to then find out that he usually wrote about jazz. His History of Jazz is as informative as it is provocative. He has the knack of telling an oft’ told tale in a fresh way that raises interesting questions. It took me months to read it because I had to keep jumping up to put on CDs – always the mark of a good music book.

And so it was with How To Listen to Jazz, his latest, following a book on jazz standards from a couple of years ago that is sitting in the pile by my beside. Time to move it up a few places!

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Johnny Hodges

Gioia starts this one by tackling the tricky notion of ‘swing’. Treme viewers will recall Clarke Peter’s character Chief Lambreaux telling his musician son that younger players can’t ‘swing’. It’s one of those elements that can be easily discerned but is difficult to describe. He attributes the ‘swinging’ quality of a great jazz ensemble not so much to the beat itself but to the level of cooperation within the band. There is a perception of jazz players as honking narcissists but for Gioia, the greatest musicians are the greatest listeners. And if you have ever played with a musician who can play but not listen you’ll know exactly what he means.

He refers to ‘an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition.’ It’s a lovely description and, in reality, the basis for any decent music made by any group of people. You have to listen, you have to respond, but you also have to tell your own story. Miles Davis has a reputation for being ‘difficult’ but he clearly had this ability. In fact, it is probably true to say that this, perhaps even more than his actual playing, was the source of his genius. The best of his albums – In a Silent Way comes to mind – are like wonderful conversations. Perhaps this is where music and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber cross paths. Jazz happens when people really meet each other. Gioia says that they work together while ‘insisting on their own prerogatives.’ It occurred to me that the same might be said of a great soccer player. The champion can do both perhaps where the talented amateur is only capable of one or the other.

John_Coltrane_-_Blue_TrainIn the second chapter, however, he focuses on the individual musician. He uses the word ‘intentionality’ to describe the way jazz musicians approach phrasing. They mean it, man! When John Coltrane blows a note, there is nothing the least bit accidental about the manner in which it is played. It might start off quietly before rising in volume or it might be a quick blast. Same note, totally different effect. Later, in a section on pitch, Gioia tells the story of Sidney Bechet giving a saxophone lesson to a journalist in the 1940s. “I’m going to give you one note today. See how many ways you can play that note – growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking.” There’s Buber again.

But this book is called How To Listen to Jazz, so what’s his advice? Don’t listen to the notes themselves, listen to how they are played. This is possibly the difference between jazz and European or ‘classical’ music. There has been endless speculation over the years about the exact nature of the ‘African’ sensibility in African American musical styles. Blues critics like Paul Oliver and Samuel Charters have researched and written extensively on the connections. Clearly, the African music that came with the people transported for slavery did not conform to any familiar system. Gioia says that Duke Ellington thought that Jazz was a marriage between European systems of music and African folk traditions. What does this mean? Thought and feeling? The ‘swing’ factor? They are difficult questions but ones that are dealt with in a concise and thoughtful manner in this book.

There is another great piece of advice from Gioia in this department: Listen to the bass. I always tell people who say they are tired of The Beatles to put on headphones and just listen to Paul’s bass playing. It’s like hearing the whole band for the first time again. In jazz, the bass is a good place to start when you are starting to discern the structure of a song. Gioia, by the way, is terrific on structure. Many people find jazz, particularly post war jazz, alienating because it’s hard to follow. This book makes it very clear what happens in most jazz songs, even the freakiest free jazz freakout you can imagine. That said, he also emphasizes that spontaneity is one of the most striking features of the form. The ‘sound of surprise’ again, but with some kind of a map.

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Clifford Jordan and Charlie Mingus, in conversation

Gioia then tackles the complex history of jazz and the question of whether or not it really was born New Orleans. Yes, it was, he says, but it grew up in Chicago and New York, and Kansas City, and California. I really liked this section. The history of jazz is fascinating but circuitous. Gioia tells it well. His breakdown of the different styles is masterful. People who say they don’t like jazz often offer a caveat like, ‘I like some big band stuff’ or ‘Miles is okay’. There is a tendency to dislike jazz because one particular style doesn’t appeal. That really is like dismissing rock and roll out of an aversion to, say, Prog rock. ‘No, I heard part of a Gentle Giant song once, rock and roll’s just not my thing.’ No one would say that but many people do when it comes to jazz. Gioia breaks down the various styles so neatly that I would defy anyone to read through this section and not reevaluate their relationship to this music. For example, I now have reason to believe, based on my love for certain mid 50s jazz albums, that I am a ‘Hard Bop’ man. This can be like one of those social media quizzes. What jazz genre are you?

I discovered jazz in Japan when I lived there in the early 90s. There was a record store near where I worked with an enormous bargain section made up entirely of the stuff. I bought a Charlie Mingus compilation one day out of curiosity. I can still remember the first time I listened to the opening few bars of Pithecanthropus Erectus. It was so… surprising! Yes! Then I discovered Eric Dolphy and a whole bunch of other people that completely transformed the way I listened to music. I have never thought of myself as a hardcore jazz fan but albums like John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Dexter Gordon’s Go are now as precious to me as my favourite rock and roll records. It can happen to you! If you are curious, and feel like it might be time for a swim in the jazz surf, the flags are out and Lifeguard Ted Gioia is on duty. You are in good hands here.

 

 

Biggest.Jazz.Fan.Ever.

https://i0.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51HLiPXsa5L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgMurray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues by Albert Murray and Paul Devlin (Editor), University of Minnesota Press, 2016

It’s entirely possible that when Albert Murray died in 2013 at the age of 97, jazz lost its biggest fan. That sounds like a huge call but after reading this book, I think it can be made.

Murray Talks Music is a collection of unpublished interviews, and a few short pieces. For any other writer, this might make for a slight volume but Albert Murray clearly didn’t do slight. These are all of considerable weight. His observations on jazz, blues, art, aesthetics, race, and literature come fast and furious here.

So who is this Albert Murray? If you haven’t heard of him you will wonder where you have been after you’ve read a few of these interviews. He was a jazz critic, possibly the greatest ever, a novelist, and a biographer. His first book was published when he was 54 years old, following a career in the American military. Along with his protégés, Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, he co-founded Jazz at the Lincoln Centre.

And he was the biggest jazz fan who ever lived. This is a man who possessed such a fine understanding of the form that he was treated like an equal by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jo Jones and many others. The discussion – interview isn’t the right word – with Dizzy Gillespie is remarkable. The trumpeter is completely relaxed. Even the friendliest of musicians, and Dizzy was pretty friendly, are wary of interviewers. There is more than a little pressure to get things right and not misrepresent their music, their colleagues, themselves. Dizzy trusts Murray and talks openly about his career and the people he played with, particularly in the early days. It’s without doubt one of the most satisfying exchanges between a musician and writer that I have ever read.

https://i0.wp.com/www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/100517_r19622_p646-963-1200-22164656.jpgHis love of jazz goes far beyond his vast knowledge of the music and its players. For Murray, jazz is the purest form of American art. Like the country itself, it is about innovation and improvisation. Jazz music, he says, is the sound of a restless nation pushing against boundaries and frontiers. It is also, for Murray, an African American art form. Some of his critics, notably Terry Teachout, have suggested that he underrated white jazz artists but Murray’s views here are far more complex. His position was that the race problem in America is one of definition and artificial lines. America for Murray was an idea, rather than a geopolitical or economic entity. He believed that African Americans were the ‘real’ Americans because they arrived from Africa with no language and no culture. They absorbed the culture of America and practiced it in its purest form, untainted by a sense of Europe as a center. They were thus able to create jazz, the greatest and perhaps only truly American art form. His first book, The Omni Americans (1970), a response to Patrick Moynihan’s damning 1965 report on the state of African Americans, suggests that the way forward could be in a redefining of American culture, to recognize the contribution of everyone involved, rather than any one group. Sadly, this probably still seems overly idealistic almost 50 years later. However, while pondering this, it occurred to me that the blues heritage of Mississippi and Chicago are now institutionalized in a manner that would have seemed unlikely even 25 years ago. When I visited Maxwell Street, Chicago, in the early 90s, the market was closed and there was no sign that this was one of the crucibles of American music. It is now heritage listed, the market has reopened, and tourism has revived what was a very depressed neighbourhood. Richard Daley’s son, of all people, made this happen! It would be lovely to think that we might one day say that music provided the groundwork for a real change in race relations in America.

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Jazz man?

Albert Murray’s own influences are of great interest as well. Though best known as a jazz critic, he was also a novelist who thought deeply about literature. Again and again, he makes reference to novels like The Magic Mountain and the ideas of Andre Malraux. Now there’s a name you don’t hear much these days! Intriguingly, he doesn’t seem to have had much interest in African American literature. He never mentions figures like CLR James and is dismissive of Zora Neale Hurston. Toni Morrison even gets a quick brickbat for Tar Baby. As far as jazz in fiction, he seems to be only impressed by one American writer: Ernest Hemingway. Yup, Papa’s staccato sentences and uncluttered phrasing has a distinct jazz sensibility according to Murray. I have read similar things about Eliot’s early poetry. Murray, like others, links jazz to Modernism at points. I would have been curious to know his thoughts on the Beats, surely the most jazz influenced of all writers’ circles. I also wondered what he thought of Walter Mosely. But then I spent the whole book wanting to ask Murray questions.

 

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Albert Murry and Ralph Ellison

But what about Ralph Ellison, you ask? Good question. They were lifelong friends and their correspondence is collected in Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. I ordered a copy – you can borrow it when I’m finished! Though it’s never stated, I had the feeling that Ralph was possibly not the jazz fan I might have imagined and that perhaps Albert Murray played Ezra to his TS in this area. Make it new and put some jazz in that book!

The final interview is a transcript of a radio program that he did with the combative critic, Stanley Crouch. Probably the most remarkable aspect of it is how deferential Crouch is to Murray. But then Crouch is controversial because he rejects most of the rhetoric around race and music in America. Crouch is a formidable critic and a force of nature in interviews but he remains a Murrayite.

The long discussion with Wynton Marsalis that opens the book is riveting. I’ve always enjoyed reading interviews with the trumpeter. He is highly articulate, passionate, and opinionated. There is a widely held perception that he is something like the active political wing for Stanley Crouch’s program. I now believe that the program might actually be Murray’s!

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With Count Basie

So, you might ask, what did the biggest jazz fan in history listen to? Clearly, The Count and The Duke were his guys. He saw Ellington as a major composer on par with Beethoven, except that he thought Ellington was better. The Count seems to pull more at his heartstrings though and is the musician that best illustrates his theory of the blues. I won’t spoil it here. If his love for these two figures seems conventional it is probably because Murray created the convention. He makes a good case too. I only wish he had lived long enough to take down Adam Gopnik, after that thuggish dismissal of the Duke in the New Yorker last year!

It’s hard to believe that Murray never played music. Most music writers, it must be said, are frustrated musicians. I certainly am! Murray does admit to tinkering with bass at one time but certainly never at a level he himself would have rated. Reassuringly, he says that music writers don’t need to be able to play music, they just need to be able to listen to it! It’s a good point and, if it is true, there is no doubt that this man was the Art Tatum of listeners.

Teasers: A masterclass in fact checking as Murray cross examines trombonist, Don Minor on the beginnings of the Basie band; Dizzy and Albert reveal the BeBop creation story. Hint: it all started with Earl Hines.

Jo Jones laying it down with Coleman Hawkins. For Murray, Jones was THE jazz drummer.

 

Ceaselessly into the Past

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Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth John Szwed, Viking 2015

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Billie Holiday sounds a bit like those boats. She drifts back from the beat and takes whatever time she needs to tell her story. It is almost her signature. But this was more than merely style. The substance of her art was the raw humanity of that voice. We’re all a bit behind the beat, as Nick Carraway reminds us. That’s what I hear in Billie Holiday.

There are two chapters about the way she sang in John Szwed’s new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. It was never a strong voice and her range was barely one octave. Teddy Wilson, with whom she made so many great records, said he preferred Barbara Streisand when asked about Billie later in life. Barbara Streisand! I mean, really! Billie herself was ambivalent about what she famously called her ‘old voice’. But that old voice was as much a wonder of the 20th century as F. Scott’s novel. She sang and she spoke at the same time. The French call this ‘diseuse’. Szwed claims that it is what gives her songs so much warmth.

The subtitle of the book, the musician and the myth, is appropriate. Szwed works hard to separate the two and explore the musical rather than the personal. And this isn’t easy. Her life was a sad one, a really sad one. The temptation to explain the pathos of her singing in terms of the lousy childhood, the drug addiction and so on is great. Very few writers have managed to avoid the black hole of biographical fallacy when writing about Billie. Hence, a book that looks at her music on its own terms instead of as an expression of her ‘tortured soul’ is a welcome addition to writing about Billie and about jazz in general. Writers such as Elijah Wald have recently called out the standard ‘blues’ biography as a racist white fantasy. This book avoids the overemphasis on ‘otherness’ and is far more informative for it.

https://i1.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03242/BillieHolidaymicro_3242443b.jpgAs if to make this plain, the first section deals with the ‘myth’ and, specifically, the autobiography Holiday produced in 1957. Lady Sings the Blues was much read at the time but is a book that has always been considered fictitious. He points out that she was forced to suppress the sections that dealt with many of her friendships and romantic relationships. Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Bishop, and several other notables threatened legal action if they were mentioned. Billie’s problems with heroin and her troubles with the law were both well known by the 1950s. No one wanted to be publicly associated with her. The book then became a hodgepodge of stories that emphasized her troubled life. Szwed suggests that the book isn’t fictitious, just incomplete. Like all biographical writing, it reflects the values of the period in which it was written. There is a glut of rock and roll memoirs on the shelves in bookstores at the moment. The selling point is, of course, the opportunity to hear the ‘true’ story from the horse’s mouth. Billie’s autobiography is a reminder that the ‘truth’ is no simple matter.

The second section, The Musician, begins with a chapter called ‘The Prehistory of a Singer’. In setting the stage for her career, Szwed reaches back to the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th century. There is no more complex period in American music with regard to race. And it lays the foundations for all the complexity to come. If you feel like sending yourself down a moral rabbit hole in regard to the music you revere, read Love and Theft by Eric Lott or Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches. In this book, Szwed notes that Billie herself had to ‘black up’ occasionally in her early days. Confused? Welcome to American music!

This chapter also highlights her high level of musicality. A classical musician who spent an afternoon with her at the piano thought that she was the most intelligent listener he’d ever encountered. She didn’t read music and did not write songs as such (discussed in another chapter) but like so many of the great jazz artists, she had an intensely musical aura. Watch the clip below. Emotional? Sure. Physical? Yes. Spiritual? Absolutely.

Billie’s first two recordings were with Benny Goodman. She also worked with the Basie band and there found a musical soul mate in saxophone genius, Lester Young. He named her Lady Day, she called him Prez, as in President of the Sax. But her most dramatic association was with Artie Shaw. There is a movie waiting to be made about their tour of the American south in the late 1930s. Black singers with white bands weren’t that unusual but they didn’t normally head to Georgia or Alabama together. Billie had to be escorted everywhere by the toughest members of the band. Shaw insisted she be treated equally in hotels, restaurants, and at the venues they played. This caused no end of trouble and eventually Holiday simply quit. She cited the fact that getting a sandwich or going to the bathroom always turned into a ‘major NAACP production’ on the tour.

There should be a warning on the cover of this book: Beware – you will feel compelled to read passages aloud to family, friends, and total strangers. It’s that sort of book. Fascinating facts and compelling stories fall off the page. You will also need access to her recordings. Szwed covers a lot of songs here and I’m pretty sure you will want to hear all of them. A top read for fans and novices alike.

 Teasers: Strange Fruit – the whole damn story! The time Rita Hayworth got really angry with Orson Welles! Tallulah Bankhead’s throwdown to Peggy Lee! Billie Holiday, babysitter!

Watch  this. Billie and Lester Young together again after years apart. They were both gone within 18 months. Heartbreaking clip.