One of the most prolific, phenomenal, and influential forces of the twentieth century, Billie Holiday’s music and voice was and remains a staple in jazz music. Her resilience and refusal to conform to the norm, but instead choosing to stay true to who she was as an artist is something to be deeply admired and is without doubt what propelled her into the legend she is today. She used her voice as an instrument to convey deep emotions that others seldom could.
Her song Strange Fruit which is considered the pivotal point of her success shed light on the racial act of lynching in the South. With her rhythmic voice, phrasing, and melodic singing she exerted power with her voice as if she were simply breathing. Her laid back and cool style on stage was a breath of fresh air to the often-expected choreographic style of Jazz singers, creating a class of her own that has become an inspiration to new Jazz singers even today.
Billie Holiday was a force that could not be swayed for she knew her voice and embraced it in a way that showcased her ability to bend notes and change up melodies along with rhythms to conform to her voice, an ability that was unmatched during her time. Her skill, influence, and life is one that can only be described as nothing less than legendary.
Determined “to never scrub floors or keep house for white folks.” Billie began her singing career in Harlem towards the end of the Harlem Renaissance.
During the night she would make her way around local popular spots. Eventually she got her first professional gig at the Great Dawn, a cabaret in Queens. Her performance was so well loved, the audience threw money at her feet. From then on, she would work in clubs in both Brooklyn and Harlem. (Greene 2007) Influenced by Jazz singers before her such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday created her own individual style. Perhaps the best translation of this is depicted in a quote from Jazz historian Gunther Schuller interpretation found in Billie Holiday the Musician and The Myth.
[Holiday’s] art transcends the usual categorizations of style, content, and technique. Much of her singing goes beyond itself and becomes a humanistic document; it passed often into the realm that is not only beyond criticism but in the deepest sense inexplicable. We can, of course, describe and analyze the surface mechanics of her art: her style, her technique, her personal vocal attributes; and I suppose a poet could express the essence of her art or at least give us, by poetic analogy, his particular insight into it. But, as with all truly profound art, that which operates above, below, and all around is outer manifestations is what most touches us, and also remains ultimately mysterious. (98)
Even when she was first discovered by John Hammond it was more than evident that there was something special about Billie Holiday. He writes about seeing and hearing Billie perform for the first time.
“My discovery of Billie Holiday was the kind of accident I dreamed of…the sort of reward I received now and then by traveling to every place where everyone performed.” (23)
Billie’s musical evolution began in the thirties when she first began recording with Benny Goodman. She sang songs by other artist such as “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Them There Eyes”, but her voice turned songs that were seldom remembered into high selling and popular successes. Again, tapping into the influence of Louis Armstrong she improvised songs by improving and streamline melodic lines, infusing a more freely swinging rhythm. A deeper description of this skill is found in the PBS article “Billie Holiday: The Long Night of Lady Day”.
Her bluesy vocal style brought a slow and rough quality to the jazz standards that were often upbeat and light. This combination made for poignant and distinctive renditions of songs that were already standards. By slowing the tone with emotive vocals that reset the timing and rhythm, she added a new dimension to jazz singing.
What makes this so significant is despite drawing influences from artist who came before her, Billie was still able to distinguish her voice and isolate her own style. The forties became the years that Billie blossomed into her success. During that time her voice was considered at its richest and most expressive. It’s no surprise that some of her best songs were also created during that time. She went from blues ballads to more heartfelt records such as “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” She also explored deeper emotions and issues in her songs such as suicide in “Gloomy Sunday”, infidelity in “Don’t Explain”, and lynching in “Strange Fruit.” The forties were also a gloomy time for Billie Holiday as she began to battle her own personal demons, but despite it all her music continued and in 1949 she achieved international success at Carnegie Hall. Despite continued battles, her resilience and control of her voice remained. She continued to record successful songs and remained in the public eye. Entering the fifties Billie continued to deliver music. She returned to singing popular ballads, lighter material, and Rhythm and Blues with songs such as “Stormy Blues”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Rock Mountain Blues”, “Yesterdays”, “Come Rain Come Shine”, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, “Fooling Myself”, and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” Her last recording, “Lady Satin” before her death was in March of 1959, including the sound of lush horns, it was unlike any of her other previous songs. (Radlauer n.d.)
Billie used vibrato to swing a note, setting it into motion by increasing the width of vibrato just before moving on to the next note or phrase. In her smooth and cool melody lines Billie would often add small but effective turns, up and down movements, fades, and drop-offs. A perfect example of this would be her version of the song I’ll Be Seeing You. Billie, knowing the strengths of her voice, instead of playing into the original performance she instead sings down and slower making the song hers and giving it a classic form of nostalgia in a way only she could. Her style of performing was unlike any other Jazz singer of her time. She embraced her stage presence by being herself. She had multiple voices from a bright nasal clear sound, a younger sounding middle, to a low rasp or growl. That still wasn’t the limit to her diverse sound because her voice could still change depending on the song she was singing. Her stage presence engaged her audience and she sang directly to them and would snap her fingers, moving to the beat of the music. An arch of the eyebrow or a tilt of the head as she responded to the sound of a chord was never uncommon. She had a rhythmic knowledge that was deeper than what could be expressed. (Szwed 2015). Billie introduced an innovative way in using her voice as an instrument when performing and singing that we still see today not only in Jazz singers but singers of other genres as well. Her use of vibrato backs this as she uses it the same way a violin does to create richer or warmer sound.
Considered one of the most significant performances of her career. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit was not only one of her most emotionally charged performances that brought her audience to tears, but a vital vehicle that took an anti-lynching stance against the racism that lived during her time. Written for her by Lewis Allan, the lyrics of Strange Fruit depicted vividly the picture of lynching:
Southern trees bear 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 magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter fruit (Clarke 1994)
Despite being afraid that her audience would hate it, Billie ultimately decided to sing it despite her fears. While listening to Strange Fruit the way she uses her voice as an instrument to convey word painting can be heard as she stretches out and heightens the word drop. She not only intensifies suspense that the audience can feel but sings it as if the tree has literally dropped. Throughout the song Billie does this and it’s no surprise that audience was often brought to tears when she performed. Billie had a way of evoking the sadness of the lyrics that made you visualize them happening around you. Her voice while singing “Strange Fruit” was both strong and quiet. Taking a deeper analysis into “Strange Fruit” it was consisted of a simple AABB rhythm pattern. The music itself was in a quadruple meter and the tempo varied depending on Billie’s performance, yet most of the time she would sing it in a “slow moving tempo”. The rhythm is homophonic while the piano repeats minor chords in B Flat in the background as Billie sings. Billie sings at a much higher octave then the piano and to the listener, her voice and lyrics are the most prominent part of the song. She again heightens essential lines such as “For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck.” And “there is a strange and bitter crop”, forcing the listener to visualize what she is singing. The song overall has a low timbre and melancholy tone and Billie uses her legato to pull out lines such as “for a tree to drop.” The song’s raw texture remains throughout until towards the end where instruments increase in volume during the final line, then all is quiet. (Drees n.d.)
Josephson Roberts describes one of Billie Holiday’s staggering performances of Strange Fruit in Wishing on The Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday:
The room was completely blacked out, service stopped- at the bar, everywhere. The waiters were not permitted to take a glass to the table, or even take an order. So, everything stopped- and everything was dark except for a little pin spot on her face. That was it. When she sang ‘Strange Fruit’, she never moved. Her hands were down. She didn’t even touch the mike. With the little light on her face. The tears never interfered with her voice, but the tears would come and just knock everybody in that house out. The audience would shout for ‘Strange Fruit’; those who’d never been down before and didn’t know her sets closed with it would shout for it when they felt her set was coming to a close. (Clarke 1994)
Strange Fruit become one of the first racial protest songs in Jazz. Its force and deep emotional lyrics challenged the Northern white audience by showcasing the brutality of Southern lynching. It is still considered one of the most powerful blows in the Civil Rights Movement and is one of Billie Holiday’s bestselling records. (Margolick 2001)
From the early thirties to the late fifties Billie Holiday left her mark on Jazz music and many amazing artists that came after her have credited her distinctive style as their influence, including Carmen McRae, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughn, Etta Jones, Pearl Bailey, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, and the great Frank Sinatra. Her distinctive voice and style made her unarguably one of the greatest Jazz singers not only of her era, but of all time. She challenged the expected by creating her on innovative take on music with improvised style and technique. She wasn’t afraid to be herself, she embraced who she was as an artist and used what she had and turned it into something only she could create. She was a torch that illuminated and shifted the definition of Jazz music. Her voice could morph into whatever she wanted it to be and was unforgettable to anyone who listened to it. Billie Holiday’s legacy transcends time, it transcends talents, and is still and will always remain a monument in the everchanging world of Jazz music.