Saturday, June 07, 2008

Jazz 101: Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was a talented and influential singer. Her magic was in the relatively subtle way she interpreted her material. She expressed herself in a genuine way without showing off. If you are interested in learning more about Holiday's music, but don't know where to start, here's a short run down, organized by the three main labels for which she recorded.


During the first phase of Billie's career, available on Columbia records, she typically served as a vocalist fronting fairly large--and quite excellent--jazz bands. Many of these tracks feature great players like Lester Young or Ben Webster. They are all very jazzy and do not make Holiday's vocals the centerpiece quite as much as her other work. The Columbia era recordings are my favorite.

Billie Holiday - Miss Brown To You (buy album)
Billie Holiday - He's Funny That Way (buy album)

If you're interested in Billie Holiday's Columbia period, I highly recommend the nine-CD Quintessential Billie Holiday series which contains nearly all of her work on Columbia and comes with informative liner notes. It's easy to find great deals on these discs on line.


In her next major phase, with Decca, Billie Holiday became more of the star. Her vocals are more front and center and often accompanied by very lush instrumentation: Lotsa strings, flashy brass, and even some background singers (yikes). While Billie was in absolutely great voice on the Decca sides, I'm not as wild about the instrumentation, which sounds a bit overwrought and dated. Still, its great stuff worth having.

Billie Holiday - God Bless The Child
Billie Holiday - Give Me A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer
(buy ablum)


In the later stages of her career, Billie recorded mostly for Verve. Her Verve output is more intimate and probably the most accessible music in her catalog. A lot of it is in the small combo jazz-club style, by which I mean the kind of music you'd want to hear at 1:30 a.m. with a cigarette and a glass of bourbon on the rocks. And its mostly excellent!

Billie Holiday - Darn That Dream
Billie Holiday - Embraceable You
(buy album)

Well, there you have it. A few great songs from one of my top 5 artists. I guess that means my blogging "hiatus" is over.

Stay tuned for the final results of the favorite country artists poll. (I will count all votes received up until the results are published.)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tracks. I appreciate you making the effort, but I feel your post missed the mark who Lady Day really was (and is).

1. She was born in Baltimore.
2. Vocals were cool & sexy, a unique combination of naive little girl & street tough.
3. She died at age 44.

All you need to know.

Paul said...

So nothing I said was wrong. I just left out what you wanted me to say. Thanks for your contribution.

muruch said...

Bille Holiday is my favorite singer of all time (closely followed by Nina Simone), my fave song of hers is "Solitude". I think the Ken Burns collection is a good place to start for Billie beginners.