Today is the centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth. Already, jazz media has remarked upon the tragic glaze that runs through her life and art. That’s cliché territory. When her art is examined, the examination fails partly because the legend of self-destruction becomes the star attraction. It is the romantic myth of the artist writ large—a notion that has been around since the 19th century—and a notion that, like another one, the “noble savage,” tends to be a disturbing go-to for critics attempting to get a handle on the black artists that molded jazz into America’s so-called classical music. What’s more, when Holiday is examined she almost reflexively is compared to Ella Fitzgerald (sometimes profitably, sometimes not), or other worthy lady jazz singers: Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, etc. But perhaps, it’ll be better to compare her to Louis Armstrong.
Both began life with bleak backgrounds. Both had prostitution in their backgrounds. Both had little education. Both were powerful instrumental phrasers—Armstrong with his horn, Holiday with her voice. Where both depart, is the texture of their art. Life being nothing if not inexplicable, Armstrong was able to command an impressive optimism. Holiday made cynicism oddly affecting. Optimism is easy enough to like: everyone wants to have ineffable sense of life’s possibilities. Count Armstrong’s natural buoyancy and charm to the tenth power, and there’s a ready-made recipe for success. On the other hand, cynicism is a tougher pill, even if it is a cynicism well-earned. To make cynicism work as artistic material takes art of the highest kind. In such songs as “God Bless the Child,” you find yourself in the greatest sympathy with the profane message and subversive context of it. You know life is a raw deal. You know Billie Holiday is a master of making the raw deal manifest in her special blues. In the ordinary view of things, Holiday’s life would be considered a failure—moral and personal. That view is always wrong: with its segregation and prejudice of those times, it was America that failed her. But art is more powerful and more enduring than life, and you need only listen to the performances at the Philharmonic circa 1940/50s in order to know and feel it.