Turning back the clock for Lady Day

AN audience can accept an actor playing Mozart because the impersonator is required only to interpret the temperament of an odd little man, not compose a symphony. But an actress playing Billie Holiday -- as Lonette McKee has been doing in Lanie Robertson's Off-Broadway musical biography, ``Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill,'' at the Vineyard Theater -- must do more than portray a tormented woman. She has to deliver the goods -- come out on stage and sing ``Easy Living'' and ``Don't Explain'' and other show pieces of perhaps the greatest of all jazz vocalists. It is an exorbitant demand, like asking an actor playing Ted Williams to step up to the plate and hit a 400-foot home run. No actress -- no singer -- can ``do'' Billie Holiday any more than an actor -- or a singer or a trumpet player -- could ``do'' Louis Armstrong.

Still, any reason is a good reason for returning our minds and hearts to the moving presence of the woman whom the saxophonist Lester Young named Lady Day.

Billie Holiday was a lot of different people at once. An actress would have plenty of problems interpreting her, even without singing.

There was the Billie with the magnolia in her hair and the silver blue mink coat and the pea-green Cadillac, living out the dreams of a wretched childhood.

And there was the appallingly lonely woman, cradling one dog after another in her lap, from the mongrel Rajah Ravoy to the chihuahua Pepi.

Billie put everything -- the dreams and the nightmares -- into her singing. She could take the most banal lyrics and fill them with a meaning that overflowed the words.

At her best, Billie sang with almost no mannerisms. She stood regally still, head slightly thrown back. She ``held her arms,'' one musician noted, ``in the position of a runner ready to sprint.'' Sometimes her fingers snapped, but lazily, disdainfully. Yet within this stillness, within this languor hid a pent-up power.

It was not the voice itself. Billie had about as small a range as even a pop singer could get away with. She produced a warm, burred tone, husky to the point of a rasp as the years went by.

Billie had only two blues in her repertoire: ``Fine and Mellow'' and ``Billie's Blues'' -- both her own compositions. She was too understated to be a blues shouter. But most of what she sang had a feeling of blues. She could melt the coldest heart with ``Why Was I Born?'' -- simply by playing down despair to wistfulness. She did so much with phrasing -- as if something eager in her could not wait for the beat, or something sad in her lagged just behind it.

She was a minimalist in technique with a volcano inside. Billie held onto certain notes, certain words like a child hugging a security blanket.

``Nobody sings the word `hunger' like I do,'' she once said. ``Or the word `love.' ''

Joy was another word she pronounced like nobody else, as if it were a sweet being savored on the tongue. Joy may have gone out of her life, but it survived in her singing, almost in spite of herself.

``The blues to me are like being very sad -- and again, like going to church and being very happy,'' she explained to an interviewer toward the end of her life, as if she could not believe her own resilience.

This erratic but somehow holy elation in life she passed on to her listeners as no jazz singer since has done. No wonder everybody wants to bring her back any way possible -- even as a theatrical clone.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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