A moment to honor the legacy of ‘Lady Day’

April 7 marked the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday. The day was commemorated with a slew of tribute concerts and a posthumous star on the Apollo Walk of Fame.

Billie Holiday

Jazz appreciation month has extra significance this year. April 7 marked the centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth. The Harlem native was commemorated with a slew of tribute concerts and a posthumous star on the Apollo Walk of Fame, firmly placing her in the constellation made up of such musical legends as Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown.

Her music – famous for its unique tempo and depth of emotion – shines with fresh starlight as well. Two popular jazz vocalists recently released albums that explore her songbook. Cassandra Wilson’s “Coming Forth by Day” (Legacy Recordings) and José James’s “Yesterday I Had the Blues” (Blue Note) demonstrate how differently Holiday’s repertoire can be interpreted: Ms. Wilson gives it a sepia-toned experimental chamber rock treatment, while Mr. James employs a traditional piano, double bass, and drums rhythm section.

“Billie Holiday is a true icon,” explains Kim Nalley, a San Francisco-based vocalist and scholar. Ms. Nalley portrayed the title character in the 2006 musical “Lady Day in Love” and will perform “The Music of Billie Holiday” with her band at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco on July 17.

The image of a singer with a flower behind her ear easily identifies Holiday, Nalley notes. But Holiday’s influence can also be found throughout popular culture. Dark post-punk rockers Siouxsie and the Banshees recorded “Strange Fruit,” one of Holiday’s best-known numbers, in 1987. In 2009, Electronica practitioner Pretty Lights sampled her songs on two of his tracks. And writer/public radio hero David Sedaris’s comedic impression of her singing style was an early calling card.

Nalley also hears some Holiday in artists as disparate as R&B vocalist Macy Gray and singer/songwriter Madeleine Peyroux. 

“People seem to play up her tragedies,” Nalley laments. “But she was a genius who changed singing forever. She was the first microphone singer who wasn’t a belter,” she adds. “And Billie didn’t try to be hip and didn’t do tunes fast. She ‘just’ connected with people emotionally.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to A moment to honor the legacy of ‘Lady Day’
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today