Saturday, April 4, 2015



I hope you enjoyed the ninth week issue from March 28-April 3, 2015 of Volume 1, Number 2 of SOUND PROJECTIONS, the online quarterly music magazine which featured the outstanding trumpet player, jazz and film composer, arranger, orchestrator, ensemble leader, teacher TERENCE BLANCHARD (b. March 13, 1962). The tenth week issue of this volume of the quarterly begins TODAY on Saturday, April 4, 2015 @10AM PST which is @1PM EST.

The featured artist for this week (April 4-April 10, 2015) is the legendary, iconic and innovative singer, songwriter, ensemble leader BILLIE HOLIDAY (1915-1959). In recognition and deep appreciation of Ms. Holiday's extraordinary life and career we celebrate the powerful ongoing legacy of one of the preeminent artists of the 20th century. So please enjoy this week’s featured musical artist in SOUND PROJECTIONS, the online quarterly music magazine and please pass the word to your friends, colleagues, comrades, and associates that the magazine is now up and running at the following site. Please click on the link below:

Thanks. For further important details please read below…


Sound Projections
A sonic exploration and tonal analysis of contemporary creative music in a myriad of improvisational/composed settings, textures, and expressions.

Welcome to Sound Projections

I'm your host Kofi Natambu. This online magazine features the very best in contemporary creative music in this creative timezone NOW (the one we're living in) as well as that of the historical past. The purpose is to openly explore, examine, investigate, reflect on, studiously critique, and take opulent pleasure in the sonic and aural dimensions of human experience known and identified to us as MUSIC. I'm also interested in critically examining the wide range of ideas and opinions that govern our commodified notions of the production, consumption, marketing, and commercial exchange of organized sound(s) which largely define and thereby (over)determine our present relationships to music in the general political economy and culture.

Thus this magazine will strive to critically question and go beyond the conventional imposed notions and categories of what constitutes the generic and stylistic definitions of 'Jazz', 'classical music', 'Blues', 'Rhythm and Blues', 'Rock 'n Roll', 'Pop', 'Funk', 'Hip Hop' etc. in order to search for what individual artists and ensembles do creatively to challenge and transform our ingrained ideas and attitudes of what music is and could be.

So please join me in this ongoing visceral, investigative, and cerebral quest to explore, enjoy, and pay homage to the endlessly creative and uniquely magisterial dimensions of MUSIC in all of its guises and expressive identities.

April 4, 2015--April 11, 2015
Billie Holiday (1915-1959): Legendary, iconic and innovative singer, songwriter, and ensemble leader

WINTER, 2015

[In glorious tribute and gratitude to this great legendary artist we celebrate her centennial year]

by Kofi Natambu
Deep within her voice
there is a bird
and inside that bird is a song
and inside that song is a light
and inside that light is a Joy
and inside that Joy is a Monster
and inside that Monster is a memory
and inside that memory is a celebration
and inside that celebration is a hunger
and inside that hunger is a dance
and inside that dance is a moan
and inside that moan is a majesty
and inside that majesty is a longing
and inside that longing is a history
and inside that history is a mystery
and inside that mystery is a fear
and inside that fear is a truth
and inside that truth is a passion
and inside that passion is a whisper
and inside that whisper is a wolf
and inside that wolf is a howl
and inside that howl is a lover
and inside that lover is an escape
and inside that escape is a regret
and inside that regret is a fantasy
and inside that fantasy is a death
and inside that death is a life
and inside that life is a woman
and inside that woman is a scream
and inside that scream is a release
and inside that release is a power
and inside that power is a voice
and inside that voice is a song
and inside that song is a singer
and inside that singer is a Holiday
and inside that Holiday is Billie

Poem from the book THE MELODY NEVER STOPS by Kofi Natambu.  Past Tents Press, 1991

by Frank O'Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfield Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face
on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

This immortal poem about Billie written upon her death in 1959 is from LUNCH POEMS by Frank O'Hara (City Lights, 1961)-- Pocket Poets Series 

WKCR presents: The Billie Holiday Centennial Festival:

Tuesday, April 7th marks the 100th birthday anniversary of the one and only Billie Holiday. We'll be celebrating the hauntingly honest, lyrical virtuosity of Lady Day with a weeklong centennial broadcast, featuring her entire 1933-1959 discography, as well as on-air interviews with musicians and scholars. WKCR has a precedent of commemorating Holiday and her incredibly important contributions to vocal jazz, jazz as a whole, and Black music in our annual birthday broadcast schedule and in a special 360-hour Billie Holiday Festival that aired in 2005. 

Tune in to WCKR 89.9FM-NY or online at from Sunday, April 5th at 2pm through Friday, April 9th at 9pm as we spend a week listening to and examining the life, career, and distinctive sound of Lady Day. We'll be posting a full broadcasting schedule soon, but so far, look forward to a combination of continuous and show-specific programming throughout the week.


April 3, 2015 

The Art of Billie Holiday’s Life
By Richard Brody
The New Yorker

Billie Holiday, like all great artists, is as distinctive, as idiosyncratic, as original off-stage and off-mike as on. Credit Photograph by Charles Hewitt / LIFE / Getty

Some biographies of artists take in the whole life—preferably with equal attention to the work, and integrating the two elements to the extent that the work invites it. Others offer a bio-slice or synecdoche, centered on one particular period, relationship, or field of activity to provide an exemplary angle on the life and work. John Szwed’s brief but revelatory new book, “Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth” (Viking), which comes out this week—just under the wire for her centenary (Holiday was born April 7, 1915)—is in another category. It’s a meta-biography, about the creation of Holiday’s public image in media of all sorts: print, television, movies, and, of course, her recordings, but with special attention to the composition of her autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” which was published in 1956.

Szwed, whose other books include a superb biography of Sun Ra, “Space is the Place,” reconstructs, through ardent archival research as well as his own interviews, the circumstances of the making of Holiday’s book. In the process, he both evaluates the first-hand significance of “Lady Sings the Blues” as Holiday’s factual and emotional account of her own life—as a record of Holiday’s experiences and ideas—and also, secondarily, treats the writing and the publication of the book as important events in Holiday’s life. She died on July 17, 1959, at the age of forty-four, and had been suffering from liver disease and heart disease. She was, as she writes, addicted to heroin “on and off” since the early nineteen-forties. Szwed says that, when she went to the hospital in 1959, “No one at the hospital knew who she was, and with needle marks on her body, she was left in the hall for hours, since the institution was not allowed to treat drug addicts.”

Holiday’s recording career was precocious: she made her first records in 1933, with a small group headed by Benny Goodman (who wasn’t yet a big-band leader). On the very first page of the first chapter, Szwed writes wisely about the timing of Holiday’s own book, nothing that at the time it was published, “jazz had moved from being the popular music of 1940s America to a more rarefied place in the public view.” This fact, for Szwed, mitigated the response that Holiday’s book received. The critics now defending jazz were mainly “closet high modernists who wanted no mention of drugs, whorehouses, or lynching brought into discussions of the music.” And those are among the subjects addressed, in unsparing detail, in Holiday’s book. (Among the critics who attacked the book was Whitney Balliett, this magazine’s longtime jazz critic, who wrote about it in the Saturday Review.)

The first section of Szwed’s book is one of the most briskly revealing pieces of jazz biography that I’ve read. First, he establishes the bona fides of William Dufty, Holiday’s collaborator on the book, rescuing him from charges of being a hack. Dufty was an award-winning journalist at the New York Post at a time when it was a leading liberal paper; he and his wife, Maely Daniele, a longtime friend of Holiday’s, welcomed her to their apartment as “a place of refuge from the police, her husband Louis McKay, reporters, and the various unsavory figures who haunted her life.” Dufty did the actual writing, based on long and detailed conversations with Holiday augmented by archival research that sparked her recollections.

Szwed sketches a handful of the book’s divergences from the independently established biographical record, starting with the legendary first sentences: “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was seventeen, and I was three.” Szwed explains, “When Billie was born, her mother was nineteen, her father seventeen. They never married . . . She was born not in Baltimore but in Philadelphia. Some questioned her claim of having been raped at age ten.”

Holiday’s book is unstinting in its depiction of the hardships she faced. As a child, she heard from her great-grandmother about life as a slave; she grew up away from her mother, in the home of a cousin who beat her; she scrubbed floors in a “whorehouse” in order to hear music on the record player; and the man who raped her when she was ten was a neighbor. She quit school at twelve and travelled to New York alone, where she worked first as a maid and then as a prostitute. Jailed and released, she moved in with her mother, who lived in Harlem. They were on the verge of eviction when Holiday, who was about fifteen, got a job singing—more or less by accident—at a local nightspot. Holiday details the roughness of the world of music, exacerbated by relentless racism—travelling through the South in the age of Jim Crow, being forced to darken her skin with makeup in order to perform in Detroit. She describes in detail her addiction to heroin, her resulting troubles with the law, and its impact on her career.

For all its confessional frankness and accusatory clarity, there is, as Szwed reveals, much more to her story—and the circumstances of the composition of “Lady Sings the Blues” are an exemplary part of it.

Delving into earlier drafts of “Lady Sings the Blues” and other archival materials, Szwed finds echoes of the book in other published sources to which Holiday had referred Dufty as particularly reliable. Holiday told Dufty some stories that were ultimately kept out of the book, including the agonizing home abortion that her mother forced her to undergo as a teen. But Szwed finds that the book’s most important omissions were demanded by lawyers (including one representing Holiday and McKay) and by many of the public figures who played major roles in Holiday’s life and autobiography.

In particular, Szwed traces the stories of two important relationships that are missing from the book—with Charles Laughton, in the nineteen-thirties, and with Tallulah Bankhead, in the late nineteen-forties—and of one relationship that’s sharply diminished in the book, her affair with Orson Welles around the time of “Citizen Kane.”

In 1941, Welles wanted to make a film called “The Story of Jazz,” in collaboration with Duke Ellington. It would be set in the nineteen-teens and twenties, centered on the rise of Louis Armstrong, playing himself. He wanted Holiday to play Bessie Smith. Welles’s movie, Szwed writes, was “intended to be radically innovative, mixing together different styles of jazz, using the surrealist drawings of Oskar Fischinger.” It was put off, Szwed reports, due to the start of the Second World War. When Welles went to Rio to make “It’s All True,” he thought that the jazz story could be woven into it—but his filming of “the everyday interaction of races in Brazil” soured Welles’s studio, RKO, on the entire production.

The basic idea is the crucial one: of all jazz singers, Holiday is the one who is a jazz musician, the equal in musical invention of the epoch-making instrumentalists who played alongside her. Szwed picks up on the negative effect on her career that her style risked when she was starting out. He quotes one club manager who told her, “You sing too slow . . . sounds like you’re asleep!” Music publishers—who still made lots of money from the sale of sheet music—didn’t like her singing, which didn’t present the melodies clearly enough. His analysis shines all the more brightly when he goes behind the scenes of the recordings to unfold the life of performance—her initial experience as a cabaret singer, going table to table for tips in the Prohibition-era cabarets on 133rd Street, where she got her start; the peculiarities of the Fifty-Second Street clubs where she performed in the late thirties, which fostered a casual musical intimacy (“They were small, maybe fifteen feet by sixty feet, and were located in the basements of brownstone residences. They featured miniature tables for a few dozen people.”). He also explains the painful conditions of some of her later recordings, when her health and her voice were in bad shape (“The on-the-spot rehearsals, the false starts, retakes, and overdubs began to pile up on the tape reels”).

Szwed looks closely at her choice of songs and the origins of ones with which she’s closely associated, including “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.” He details the life-threatening conflicts that she faced on the road in the South, where she performed as a member of the (white) Artie Shaw band. And he carefully considers the specifics of performance later in her career, when she sang at Carnegie Hall and recorded with far more elaborate arrangements than she had used in her youth—and focusses on the musical implications of these circumstances.

Above all, in analyzing her art, Szwed argues for the difference between the performer and the life—between the on-stage persona and the person: “Her ability to communicate strong and painful emotions through singing led many to believe that she was suffering and in real pain. But real suffering is not necessary for great singing, only the ability to communicate it in song . . . Like actors, singers create their identities as artists through words and music. . . . All we can know for certain is the performance itself.”

In general, the desire of even the most discerning critics, such as Szwed, to separate art and life, to analyze the formal traits of works as if they were dissociable from the experience and the emotions that inspire them and that they convey, is both noble and doomed—noble, because artists deserve to be honored for their achievements, and doomed, because the formal and systematic nature of those achievements isn’t what makes them endure. The individuality, the immense complexity of inner life that art conveys—including Holiday’s seemingly straightforward and instantly appreciable art—doesn’t occur in a laboratory-like isolation.

Holiday herself, in “Lady Sings the Blues,” took care to depict the unity of her personal life and her musicianship, starting with the haphazard circumstances under which she began her career, as a teen-age ex-prostitute in need of a fast way of making rent for herself and her mother. She specifically connects the way she sings with her experiences—and with her readiness to face them. (“Maybe I’m proud enough to want to remember Baltimore and Welfare Island.”)

Holiday, like all great artists, is as distinctive, as idiosyncratic, as original off-stage and off-mike as on. The life doesn’t explain the art; rather, life is an art in itself—whether a creation of sublime moments and fascinating gestures, or of terrifying confrontations and mighty endurances—that is illuminated by the same inner light, inspired by the same genius, inflected by the same touch that makes the works of art endure on their own. The biographer of an artist is a critic in advance, in acknowledging and appreciating the actions of an artist’s life and recognizing what’s personal and distinctive in their being—in discerning the artistic aspect of the life. Szwed, in his brief book, accomplishes this goal, perhaps even better than he intended.

Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999, and has contributed articles about the directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Samuel Fuller. He writes about movies in his blog for

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth review – reclaiming Lady Day's artistry

Everyone knows about the sex and drugs – but John Szwed’s biography makes the case for Holiday as a complex artist who inspired in many different directions

Billie Holiday: one of the most famously indescribable – and inimitable – voices in all of jazz and pop-music history. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives 

by Seth Colter Walls
Thursday 2 April 2015
The Guardian (UK)

To the public, Billie Holiday might simply be an icon. But to specialists, she’s the subject of a long and unsettled argument. In the view of some critics, her art has often gotten short shrift compared with discussions over the tabloid particulars of her too-short life. In 1956, she published a co-written autobiography called Lady Sings the Blues, which tried to balance confessional storytelling with assertions of her artistic control. It was accused of doing a disservice to jazz by some self-appointed guardians of the genre.

In later decades, Lady Day – as she was called by fans and fellow musicians – was even accused of having been illiterate. A fast-and-loose 1972 biopic starring Diana Ross, a pop singer ill-suited to capturing Holiday’s swinging sophistication and melodic genius, hardly improved anyone’s understanding. The feminist critic Angela Davis took sharp exception to the film, writing that it “tends to imply that her music is no more than an unconscious and passive product of the contingencies of her life”.

With the approach of Holiday’s centenary, more and more people are coming over to Davis’s side. John Szwed’s swift, conversational and yet detail-rich new biography, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, communicates its artist-first priorities in the subtitle, and then makes good on them throughout. That’s not to say that he ignores the singer’s romantic flings (with Orson Welles, among others), the domestic abuse suffered at the hands of multiple partners or the long-term heroin use that are part of the familiar Holiday lore. Crucially, though, he spends more than half his page-count closely considering Holiday’s music. And his book comes just as three new recordings – one from José James, a singer who skillfully bridges the worlds of contemporary R&B and jazz, one by Cassandra Wilson and another by the classical pianist Lara Downes – likewise investigate the musician’s catalogue with respectfully daring air.

As tough as it is for those musicians to interpret songs Holiday made iconic, it’s possible that Szwed’s challenge was more daunting. He is writing in the wake of Holiday biographies that have, by necessity, relied on speculation and hearsay, given the fact that Holiday gave few interviews (and saw her autobiography redacted by a lawsuit-averse publisher). There are also political ambiguities involved in narrating the choices of an African American artist who, as Davis noted, “worked primarily with the idiom of white popular song”. And then there are the difficulties of needing to describe one of the most famously indescribable – and inimitable – voices in all of jazz and pop-music history.

On the latter point, Szwed clears his throat a bit – quoting divergent critical opinions and eminent musicologists – displaying some of the agonies that prose suffers when summing up the Holiday sound. But he does have moments where he succeeds beautifully: “In the upper register she had a bright but nasal sound; she sounded clearer, perhaps even younger, in the middle; and at the bottom, there was a rougher voice, sometimes a rasp or a growl. But even these voices were varied or might change depending on the song she was singing.” Elsewhere, Szwed is on point when he describes Holiday “falling behind the beat, floating, breathing where it’s not expected, scooping up notes and then letting them fall”.

As the author of compelling books on complex figures such as Miles Davis and Sun Ra, it’s little surprise that Szwed is also wise and authoritative on the sad, complex interaction of Jim Crow racism and early pop-music practices, in the 20-page chapter The Prehistory of a Singer. And he proves as good at reading Holiday’s political choices – such as revising the “in dialect” lyrics of Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy – as he is at spelling out Holiday’s evolving approach to improvisation, over the course of her career.

Like Davis, Szwed hears a hint of feminist consciousness-raising in Holiday’s 1948 rendition of My Man. And on the tortured history of credit-taking for the composition of Strange Fruit – the anti-lynching protest song that stunned one nightclub audience after another, once Holiday added it to her repertoire – Szwed cuts through the brush to show the ways in which Holiday’s melodic approach (as well as her choice to perform it in front of white people) destined the song for a place in history as much as anything else.

If it sounds like the accumulated weight of history makes for solemn reading, a lot of fun can actually be had using Szwed as a listening partner. Go ahead and launch your streaming-music engine of choice and build a playlist with the tracks as Szwed considers them. You probably won’t need much help enjoying three rare Holiday recordings with Count Basie’s 1937 band – available on disc eight of Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia, 1933-1944 – since the musicians’ collective brand of ecstasy requires little in the way of selling. But Szwed’s description of Holiday “gliding over rhythm suspensions and finding her way over the glassine 4/4 of a great swing rhythm section” is a treat – as is his song-by-song investigation of Holiday’s musical partnerships with the pianist Teddy Wilson and the saxophonist Lester Young.

In the case of pre-existing songs that Holiday made her own, Szwed cites earlier recordings by other singers before inviting you to compare them with what he deems to be Holiday’s best version (the better to put her skills in relief). And when it comes to the core of Lady Day’s catalogue – the songs she recorded, with great variance, during multiple phases of her career – Szwed’s listening notes shed useful light on the differences, especially for fans who think they can safely dismiss the portion of Holiday’s discography that is less favoured by jazz aficionados.

That very hybridity – Holiday’s ability to help define jazz singing, and then buck the genre’s conventions – is what makes the new spate of tributes to her feel so appropriate. A listener might disagree with an arrangement choice made by Cassandra Wilson, on Coming Forth By Day, or else miss elements of swing in Lara Downes’s classical recital A Billie Holiday Songbook – but their risk-taking is clearly in the service of honoring Holiday’s often-surprising moves. (José James’s Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday is just about perfect, including as it does the playing of MacArthur-winning pianist Jason Moran.)

Plenty of stars from yesteryear had crazy-juicy personal lives; very few left behind conceptual approaches that inspire in so many directions. Each of these new albums is in league with Szwed’s book – a joint persuasion campaign meant to encourage us to consider musicianship as the defining characteristic of Lady Day’s legacy. That’s about as fine a centenary-year gift as anyone had a right to expect.

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth is published by Viking Press in the USA, and William Heinemann in the UK

When Billie played her yearly concerts at the Apollo and at Carnegie Hall everyone came out in full force either to hear her sing or to see whether she was still together. Each time a new record was issued it was compared with her early ones, and she was often judged to be imitating herself, to be working with the wrong musicians, the wrong arrangers, etc. Most everyone liked to believe that Billie made her best records when she sang with Count Basie and the other geniuses of swing. It's hard to disagree, for she was, like all of them, an incredible horn in those days. Billie's later records, usually in a much slower tempo, are a different music. They are the songs of a woman alone and lonely and without much sympathy. No one blows pretty solos behind her like Lester did. Sometimes there are unintelligent voices in the background going oo-oo-oo with none of the wit Billie had on "Ooo-oo-oo what a lil moonlight can doo-oo-oo." Nevertheless, these are the songs of Lady Day too, and if the sorrow sounds a little heavier it was because she'd been carrying it a while. "I remember when she was happy-" Carmen McRae said in 1955, "that was a long time ago."

Billie and Louis both were arrested in 1956. Billie knew by this time that if the Narcotics Bureau wanted to get her it only had to be arranged, the evidence "found" and she could be convicted on her past record. In her book she pleaded that the addict be treated rather than punished. She knew how little good punishment had ever done to help her. And her stated purpose in revealing all that she considered shameful in her life was to warn young people away from heroin. "If you think dope is for kicks and for thrills, you're out of your mind.... The only thing that can happen to you is sooner or later you'll get busted, and once that happens, you'll never live it down. Just look at me."

Billie never was able to stop using heroin completely, though she tried very hard. Some people thought she could have tried harder: "That girl's life... was just snapped away from foolishness." But there were others who knew and loved her. Lena Horne and Billie had been friends since Cafe Society days, and she understood how life had been spoiled for Billie.

Billie didn't lecture me - she didn't have to. Her whole life, the way she sang, made everything very plain. It was as if she were a living picture there for me to see something I had not seen clearly before.

Her life was so tragic and so corrupted by other people-by white people and by her own people. There was no place for her to go, except finally, into that little private world of dope. She was just too sensitive to survive.

Billie survived long enough to sing a few days at the Five Spot, a club that opened in downtown New York in the fifties. Her last appearance was at the Phoenix Theater in New York in May, 1959. On May 31 she was brought to a hospital unconscious, suffering from liver and heart ailments, the papers said. Twelve days later someone allegedly found heroin in her room. She was arrested while in her hospital bed and police came to guard her, to make sure this now thin, suffering woman could not get away from the law one more time. But she escaped the judgment of the United States of America versus Billie Holiday for a higher judgment, on July 17, 1959.

Billie Holiday at 100: Artists reflect on jazz singer’s legacy
By Aidin Vaziri
Friday, April 3, 2015
Photo: Associated Press

Image 1 of 13

FILE - This Sept. 1958 file photo shows Billie Holiday. The Apollo Theater is planning events to commemorate the 100th birthday of Holiday. The legendary American jazz vocalist was born on April 17, 1915 and died in 1959 at the age of 44. Holiday performed at least two dozen times at the Apollo. She will be inducted into its Walk of Fame on April 16, 2015. (AP Photo/FILE)

Billie Holiday would have turned 100 this week, but who’s counting? The famed jazz singer and songwriter’s voice is ageless, still luring fans with its effortless swagger and unblinking candor. It carried with it all the difficulty she endured throughout her tumultuous life — born Eleanora Fagan, an illegitimate child, on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore; died strung out and broken 44 years later in New York — along with all the hope, fear and desperation that came with it. “What comes out is what I feel,” she once said.

No one else can sound like Billie Holiday because no one else lived like Billie Holiday.
Yet in generation after generation, her influence is unmistakable. To mark the centennial of her birth, which will be celebrated with concerts, books, albums, tributes and reissue packages around the world, we spoke with some people closer to home whose lives were deeply touched by Holiday.

Paula West

Longtime Bay Area jazz singer, torchbearer of the American Songbook popularized by Holiday

I’m not quite sure when I first heard Billie Holiday. I believe it was before the Diana Ross biopic (“Lady Sings the Blues”) was released. Of course their voices were dissimilar. I was young at the time, and had only been exposed to those “greatest hits,” such as “Fine and Mellow,” “Them There Eyes” and “Good Morning Heartache.”

I feel the best singers have always been able to get across the raw emotions of the lyrics. She had no great vocal range, but that was never needed. It was about telling the truth, the story, and not too many singers could ever match her natural interpretations. No vocal histrionics, melisma necessary. She was respected by musicians, as well, and her singing was influenced by musicians such as Louis Armstrong.

There are dozens of her interpretations I love, but “Lady in Satin” is my favorite, particularly her version of “I’m a Fool to Want You.” The arrangement is beautiful yet heartbreaking, of course, and no one could deliver that better than Billie Holiday.

Lavay Smith

Blues and jazz singer with Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, renowned for her tributes to the first ladies of jazz

I remember seeing Billie Holiday singing on TV on an oldies station that would show the Little Rascals, Shirley Temple and old black-and-white movies. Like everyone who hears her, I loved her right away.

Billie remains an icon because she was true to herself. As a singer, she made you believe that she meant every word she sang. Lyrics were very important to her, which isn’t true of all jazz singers. And the feeling that she creates through her use of rhythm was always swingin’ and happy. A lot of people think of her music as being sad, but she had a great sense of humor that comes through, and I’ve always found her music to be uplifting.

The first album I bought was “Lady Sings the Blues,” and I played the heck out of. It included “Strange Fruit” and many of her hits, like “Traveling Light” and “Good Morning Heartache.” I love all of the Columbia recordings that she did with Lester Young and Teddy Wilson, including all of the obscure songs. I just love the feeling and the soul of these records. The interplay between Billie and Lester Young is the textbook definition of how an instrumentalist should interact with a singer.

Joey Arias
New York cabaret singer and drag artist, who recently performed a tribute to Billie Holiday at Lincoln Center

I remember hearing her voice and thinking how lovely she sounded. I wanted to have that same sound that she was emoting. It was a magic spell that was sent to me. I feel as though we were connected at the hip from stories I’ve heard from friends and family.

Billie was an outspoken person. She was class all the way and never wanted to be treated any other way. She was being followed and became public enemy for standing up for her rights and acting strong and never letting her guard down. She dressed beautifully and had such presence.
“Lady in Satin” is my favorite album. It all depends on what period you want to hear her style, but I love her in the late ’50s. She summed it all up — her life, her singing and her thoughts, and her love of life and love.

Randall Kline
SFJazz executive director

I heard her on the home stereo as a teenager. My parents were jazz fans. One hearing of her voice — soft, persuasive, mournful, honest, beautiful — told you to listen more closely. “Don’t Explain” for its raw pathos. “Strange Fruit” for its power, poignancy and, sadly, its contemporary relevance.

Getting to know Billie Holiday

Here are some albums to help you get better acquainted with the jazz singer’s magic.

“Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday,” Legacy. A two-CD set containing many of the classic sides Holiday cut for Columbia and its Brunswick, Vocalion and Okeh labels in the 1930s and early ’40s, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “A Fine Romance,” “You Go to My Head” and “The Man I Love.”

“Billie Holiday: The Complete Decca Recordings,” GRP. An excellent two-CD box featuring the torch songs, raucous renditions of signature Bessie Smith numbers, and other material Holiday recorded for Decca from 1944 to 1950.

“Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years,” Verve. A good two-disc survey of Holiday’s small-band recordings of the 1950s, featuring stellar soloists like Ben Webster and Benny Carter.

“Lady in Satin,” Legacy. A heartbreaking beauty. Writer Michael Brooks wrote that this 1958 album feels “as if a group of family and friends are gathered around a loved one and saying their last goodbyes.”

“Ken Burns Jazz — Definitive Billie Holiday,” Verve. Compiled by the documentary filmmaker, this single-disc collection culls material from the three major phases of the singer’s career. — Jesse Hamlin

Kitty Margolis

San Francisco jazz singer, trustee at the Recording Academy, founder of Mad-Kat Records

I remember staring at a girlish, chubby Billie on the cover of this brown Columbia three-LP box set released in 1962, “Billie Holiday: The Golden Years.” It had an extensive photo book with detailed track listings inside and liner notes by John Hammond and Ralph Gleason. I still have it. Opening it and smelling the paper takes me right back. I realize now that a lot of the tunes in this box became very important to my early core repertoire.

I don’t think there is one genuine female jazz singer in the world who doesn’t have Billie inside. She defined the idiom.

One major thing that set Billie apart as a jazz singer is that she was a musician’s singer, a master improviser without ever uttering one scat syllable. She was not a classically “pretty”-sounding singer like Ella or Sarah. Billie’s sound was a bittersweet brew: raw, tart, personal, intimate, relaxed, understated, urgent.

Billie’s storytelling was always 100 percent emotionally intelligent and believable, an ironic cocktail of longing, pride, pain, strength with a sharp glint of humor. No one could sound happier (“Them There Eyes”) and no one could sound darker (“I’m a Fool to Want You”). Billie sang the truth. There was no “acting” involved. She could take even the most banal pop lyric of the time and imbue it with subtext that gave it a much deeper message, almost like a code.