Too often, when we hear about Billie Holiday, we hear mainly about her struggles with substance abuse. We hear about her tumultuous love life and troubled childhood. We see photographs of the now-iconic gardenia in her hair and the glass of gin in her hand and we marvel at the “feeling” she put into her music, an organic by-product of the tragedy and hopelessness in her personal life.
Well, yes, it’s true that Billie Holiday could tear your heart out with her plaintive, spare renderings of sad songs. But it’s condescending and reductive to attribute the emotional impact of Billie Holiday’s singing to her tempestuous personal life. She was a masterful musician, first and foremost, and it’s a shame to gloss over that fact in favor of the more salacious elements of her story.
When I listen to early Billie Holiday recordings, I marvel again and again at the suppleness and horn-like flexibility…
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