I recently got word that Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment, has signed singer Cassandra Wilson. Wilson’s first album for the label will be “Coming Forth By Day,” which a press release described as “a musical homage to legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday” and a “showcase for contemporary yet timeless standards associated with Lady Day.”
Wilson is hardly the first singer to pay such tribute. (My own favorite album along such lines is Dee Dee Bridgewater‘s 2010 CD, “Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee” (DDB Records/Emarcy).
Yet Wilson, whose CD is slated for Spring 2015, in time for the centennial of Holiday’s birth, will, I’m certain, have her own distinctive take. (As readers of this blog know, she’s among my favorite musicians. I haven’t heard the music yet. But the news prompted me to dig out a somewhat long soliloquy Wilson gave me about Holiday, when I was writing a piece about Holiday years ago, that began with my asking, “When do you remember first hearing Billie Holiday?” It hints at where she’ll be coming from when she sings these songs:
It seems as if she was always there. My mother used to sing “God Bless the Child” to me when I would ask her for money. So I got the message of that song. But then I heard Billie Holiday sing that song, and what I understood was something musical.
When you talk about jazz expression, Billie might be the prime mover. She epitomized an economical approach — something that Miles Davis picked up on and ran with — with an emphasis most of all on the mood. She created a mood with timbre, not relying so much so on broad sweeping ranges or note choices, but by caressing a note and getting every last bit out of it that you can. The really great artists have such a distinctive timbre that you can hear one note and know who it is. Billie was always in that category.
Betty Carter was early icon for me. Comparing them may seem like a case of apples and oranges. Yet although they had completely different approaches, they were cut from the same cloth. You have to look beyond the physical manifestations of who they are and what they sang. You have to look at who they are as archetypes. Billie, like Betty, was a musician. Billie hung out with the musicians. She understood their language. She was an innovator. She was nearly the opposite of Betty in that she wouldn’t be so much concerned about scatting like a horn or improvising like a horn. But she would find the center of the note, and weave a small, tight circle around that center – she’d bend it and shape it like no one else. And that was the core of her art. Now, it takes just as much imagination to do that, to even figure out that you can do that. And it takes a thorough understanding of harmony and melody and rhythm to be able to deal within a short range of notes, find that center, and then weave patterns that give rise to colors and overtones and a clear emotional direction.
Of course, there was an important social and political dimension to everything Billie sang and did that was just as personal and just as artful woven and direct. She chose to express herself, which clearly was not a good choice in terms of the way society dealt with her. She was somebody who could have chosen to be more safe and acceptable. Physically she was very beautiful and, at that time, there was a high premium placed on the particular coloring of her skin. But she elected a more difficult path that challenged rather than pleased people. She chose to sing songs about things that made people uncomfortable: death, loneliness, racism, brutality. She sang about a lot of stuff that was really dark, and not that readily acknowledged in the popular culture of the time.
I don’t think I could have lived through the experiences that Billie Holiday lived through. I don’t think I could have endured that. But all of those experiences and the feelings they stirred up are contained in her music. And her sheer will is contained in her voice and the musical stories she told. Her will was enormous — to do what she wanted to do, to be who she wanted to be, and to define herself instead of being defined by others.
She experienced a lot of the ugliness in the music business and of society. And I think because she endured that, I don’t have to endure as much. Because of the way she walked through the things that she saw and expressed the feelings that she had, she eased my way and the path for so many others.
Image: ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images