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The Happier Holiday

Billie 1Dope addict, punchbag for her partners, target of racial prejudice – Billie Holiday, who was born 100 years ago this month, has long been universally known not just as jazz’s greatest singer but also one of its saddest casualties. The phenomenally gifted vocalist, whom Frank Sinatra credited as his “greatest single influence”, is associated in many people’s minds with tragedy, oppression, abuse and the blues. But the truth is that the iconic Lady Day was not – for much of her existence – a downtrodden, pathetic creature at all.

Just because the key events in Holiday’s life – a possible rape when she was ten years old, an enforced separation from her mother, working as a prostitute in her teens, getting hooked on heroin, spending time in jail and suffering terrifying racial abuse – could have made her a victim, it doesn’t automatically follow that she was. Holiday’s final years were undoubtedly tragic but one shouldn’t assume that everything that went before was too.

Her death has come to overshadow her life; the ebullience and life-affirming qualities inherent in many of her recordings and in her personality – as described by friends and colleagues – until her last decade are often overlooked, swept aside by society’s need to slot everyone into a category.

But Billie Holiday was far too complex a character to be pigeon-holed simply as one of life’s victims. For one thing, she was not the type of person to allow herself to be pushed around – at least by anyone other than her lovers. And if anyone tried, the chances are they would get a fat lip, or at least a mouthful. On numerous occasions, especially in her flaming youth, Holiday squared up to bigots – walking away was not an option.

There are various tales of how Holiday reacted to instances of racial prejudice – and they all involve her taking decisive, often reckless, Billie 2action. On the road with Artie Shaw’s all-white band in 1938, she knew that things would be tough below the so-called Mason-Dixon Line: rednecks in the South would tolerate black people as entertainment, but this being the land of lynchings and the Klan, they wouldn’t acknowledge them as human beings.

During one show, Holiday was going down a storm but when a voice from the audience yelled: “Have the nigger wench sing another song!”, her simmering rage exploded and, in front of a packed auditorium, she clearly mouthed an obscenity which, as Shaw later recalled, caused “all hell to break loose”.

Other stories involve barroom brawls and Lady Day – for all her fisticuffs and foul language, she was the most elegant of singers – inviting ignoramuses who slurred her to step outside for a fight. Her pianist Bobby Tucker later said: “She beat the crap out of a guy at the bar who called her ‘nigger bitch’.”

Despite having no fear about standing up to the thugs and bullies she came across when she was out in public, Holiday allowed herself to be beaten up by a string of violent male partners – and there’s never been much evidence of her defending herself against them in the way that she did with strangers. Dan Morgenstern, the leading jazz expert who knew Holiday in the 1950s, is one of a number of her acquaintances who believes that: “She had a strong masochistic streak. She wanted guys who would hurt her both physically and emotionally.”

The two sides of Holiday’s personality are clear from one of the songs that became inexorably linked with her: My Man. It’s very much a song of two halves – the first, in a minor key, is all about the singer’s troubles with her lover (“Two or three girls has he/That he likes as well as me/But I love him”); the second is in a major key, slightly faster and much more hopeful (“All my life is just despair/ But I don’t care/When he takes me in his arms/ The world is bright, alright”).

Holiday recorded it three times – once in each decade of her recording career – and by the second recording, in 1949, she had added the lines “He beats me too/What can I do?”. That this song, though written by someone else, summed up her own point of view is clear from the fact that she ended her autobiography with a quote from it: “Tired? You bet/ But all of that I’ll soon forget with my man ..”

Of course, Holiday’s wilfully self-destructive habit of choosing brutes as her romantic partners was mirrored by her self-destructive drug addiction which has become the main theme of the Billie Holiday story over the years. Aside from the physical toll that heroin took on her, it also sapped her battling spirit and her lust for life. It turned her, when she was in thrall to the drug, into a different person and it cost her many friends.

Holiday’s tragic image was partly her own creation. In 1955, desperate for money to finance her habit, and aware of the fact that there was a demand for confessional memoirs, she dictated her autobiography to journalist William Dufty. It’s a compelling read, with Holiday’s characteristically “salty” language suggesting its authenticity but the reality was that it was full of exaggerations and deliberate distortions on her part. She hoped that the sensational aspects – which, before the publishers got cold feet, were to include details of her sexual adventures with everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Orson Welles – would attract Hollywood’s attention.

Indeed, it’s from the autobiography that much of the Holiday myth originates, as she allowed herself to come across as a victim. Even the title, Lady Sings the Blues, which was imposed by the publisher, is inaccurate: Holiday was not a blues singer; she rarely sang the blues.

Holiday’s tragic image was further consolidated in the public consciousness by the 1972 biopic, also entitled Lady Sings the Blues, which featured a harrowing performance by Diana Ross but had even less to do with the facts of Holiday’s life than her memoirs. Several key figures in her career, including Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, refused to allow their names to be used.

Perhaps Goodman and Shaw, who both met Holiday in her earliest years on the jazz scene, simply didn’t recognise in the Lady Sings the Blues character the insouciant, fun-loving girl they had known. Her friends from the 1930s and 1940s remember a bawdy young woman with a lust for life, and an appetite for sensation.

Even in her final decade, the 1950s, there were still glimpses of her wild ways. Singer Annie Ross, who was one of the friends who stuck by her till the very end, recalls an afternoon in Paris where they drank their way down the Champs-Elysees, cafe by cafe, supposedly on a Billie 4shopping expedition. After visiting a fancy boutique where they viewed tray after tray of jewellery, Lady Day tipped out her pockets to reveal to her young friend a stash of necklaces and other baubles.

But for proof positive that the happy-go-lucky, “don’t careish”, Billie Holiday existed before – and then alongside – the rather more troubled Lady Day, just listen to her legacy of recordings. Yes, you’ll feel pity for the later Holiday with the voice that has paid the price for her lifestyle, but you’ll also feel uplifted by the sheer joie-de-vivre she exuded throughout the 1930s and then on occasion until she died, on July 17 1959.

* First published in The Herald, July 2009

 

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The Swashbuckler

The first time I saw the American clarinettist Evan Christopher in concert, I feared for his personal safety. It was a balmy Friday night at the 2004 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, the Spiegeltent (a venue less beloved by jazz fans than by drinkers) was packed, and the liveliest section of the audience was a table of well-fuelled women who were clearly in party mode. As Christopher and his fellow thirtysomething Duke Heitger (trumpet) tore through their programme of traditional New Orleans-style jazz, the hen party went nuts – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience hoping that the musicians were as accomplished at dodging volleys of flying knickers as they were at serving up hot solos.

It was a great concert – and the reaction of the hens helped to underline the fact that this may be the oldest form of jazz but it is still vibrant, fresh, sexy and able to stir a crowd, and not necessarily a crowd of aficionados. What particularly struck me at the time was that, in Evan Christopher, here was a poster boy for traditional jazz. He had a swagger, a sense of showmanship and a swashbuckling air about him when he played that made you sit up and take as much notice of him as the music coming out of his clarinet. It’s little surprise that he has since become something of a TV star in France where his current, hugely successful band Django a La Creole – gyspy jazz with a New Orleans twist – was born while he was effectively living in self-imposed exile after losing his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

There may be an air of what some of the veteran musicians would regard as youthful arrogance and insouciance about Christopher (though he is now 41 years of age), but when he’s not playing, he is actually a surprisingly shy character who, it turns out, has had more than his fair share of obstacles.

Born of a Thai mother, he was adopted as a baby and raised in a predominantly white neighbourhood of Long Beach, California. For reasons he claims not to know – presumably he was gifted or exceptionally bright – he was sent to school two years early and consequently always found “the social side of school a little awkward”. He jokes about it – “basically it meant that chicks and sports didn’t enter the equation until later” – but two years is a big difference in high school, and it seems to have shaped Christopher into a self-sufficient, self-reliant character.

Indeed, he brushes off the inevitable question about how his musical talent was discovered, saying: “Music just happened to be something that I wasn’t bad at. It was something I could work at on my own; it didn’t require that I be around other people.”

It wasn’t until Christopher was in his final year of high school that his talent was taken seriously: he was invited to attend an arts boarding school. Up to that point, his experience of jazz had been gleaned from playing in the school band and from cassettes made by friends of his father, and from the LPs that his dad had in the house; Johnny Dodds (from Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven line-ups) and Artie Shaw emerging as his favourite clarinettists.

At this arts boarding school, Christopher was “discovered” by a bass player named Marshall Hawkins who was working as a sports teacher. “Nobody at school knew he was a professional musician but he’d go and play gigs with whoever was in town – Joe Henderson or Eddie Harris or whoever. I had broken into a classroom to play a piano, and he found me there. I didn’t get into trouble … but he corrected some of the chord changes .. He became my first jazz mentor.”

After university, Christopher did stints in Los Angeles, New Orleans and San Antonio, Texas. He was living in New Orleans, using it as a base for tours and the occasional gig on the riverboats with the afore-mentioned Heitger, when Hurricane Katrina hit, in September 2005 – a year after that famous Edinburgh gig.

When hurricane struck, Christopher was playing at a jazz festival high in the mountains of California – and with no signal on his phone. Over the course of the weekend, his then-girlfriend (now wife) tried to contact him to say that she was going to evacuate (“No big deal – we had evacuated the summer before,” he says), and asking where his passport was and whether she should take any of his instruments with her. Unable to pick up any of these messages, Christopher only learned what had happened when he saw the news a couple of days later, just at the point when the federal levees failed.

His partner was safe but their ground floor home was completely flooded – “Our area was worse than average, about eight feet of water on the street, six in the actual dwelling.” He drove his girlfriend to her parents’ home in Omaha, and he returned to his home state of California. “I set about trying to salvage my tours. I made a great effort to find other musicians and get them connected and make sure that everybody had each other’s contact information. A web designer up in New York donated some money to help me put together a website with resources for places they could get financial assistance. I hooked them up with Jazz Foundation of America if they needed instruments replaced and things like that. It was something to do.”

A month after Katrina, Christopher returned briefly to New Orleans (he only moved back full-time in 2008) to try to salvage what he could, but it was “considerably worse” than he had expected. He’s philosophical about it all. “At the end of the day, it was just an apartment-ful of crap. There are still books I go to the shelf and look for every now and then, and then I remember. There were plenty of people who lost more than I did. Imagine someone who’d actually lived there for a couple of generations..”

Has his Katrina experience changed his outlook at all? Is he less attached to stuff? “Well, I’ve never been hugely attached to anything. I didn’t appreciate losing everything though! I do get mad – I get mad when I find we have accumulated multiple items that we don’t need. Oh, I know one thing that changed – I don’t shelve wine as much any more! I pretty much buy it and drink it…”

This piece was first published when Django a la Creole was playing the 2011 Edinburgh Jazz Festival. In autumn 2012, the band is touring Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. For full details, click here.

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