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On her centennial, what Billie Holiday means to Baltimore

In her youth, she played hooky on the streets of Fells Point. As a woman, she performed at clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Now, a century after Billie Holiday's birth on April 7, 1915, admirers are invoking her spirit, making sure that one of history's greatest jazz singers — the greatest, many would say — will be honored in her hometown and around the world.

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"You don't have to sing or be in music to know how really phenomenal she was," said Ethel Ennis, the exceptional 82-year-old Baltimore-born jazz artist who, at the start of her own career, received encouragement from Holiday. "When you hear her, you know it's the truth, and that's hard to find."

Holiday's centennial has prompted widespread interest again in her troubled life — she had an untimely death at age 44 — and her artistic legacy, preserved on such classic recordings as "God Bless the Child"; "Strange Fruit," a chilling reflection on lynching Holiday bravely sang at the height of Jim Crow; and the many standard songs she transformed with her indelible voice and phrasing.

A biography, "Billie Holiday: The Musicians and the Myth," was released this week by John Szwed. A "Centennial Collection" from Columbia Records was issued recently.

Cassandra Wilson, who sang a salute to Holiday at the Kennedy Center last week, will perform another on April 10 at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem — Holiday will be inducted into the Apollo Walk of Fame on Monday.

Wilson's Holiday tribute album, "Coming Forth By Day," is due out Tuesday. And at least two other contemporary singers, Jose James and Lara Downes, have released Holiday-themed recordings as well.

In Baltimore, there is no major civic event to mark the Holiday anniversary. Kevin R. Harris, chief of public affairs at the mayor's office, said no one was available to comment about that. He added that "plans are still being finalized as to what exactly city officials will be participating in." Harris did not respond to requests for additional information.

Tracy Baskerville, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, said there have been discussions about honoring Holiday at the 2015 Artscape festival. (The Billie Holiday Vocal Competition, which was part of Artscape for its final few years, ended in 2009 after two decades due to dwindling attendance.)

Meanwhile, fans of Holiday, nicknamed "Lady Day" by an accompanist early in her career, have planned numerous events for the 100th birthday.

"I feel like these are all grass-roots celebrations," said jazz vocalist Rhonda Robinson. "I was hoping the city would make a big to-do about it."

Robinson will perform with her quartet April 12 in the 200 block of S. Durham Street where Holiday lived as a child, a spot vividly decorated with murals and painted screens honoring the singer.

"Even though she was born in Philadelphia, we claim her," said Thomas Saunders, 57, a longtime operator of tours to the city's African-American heritage sites. "She grew up in Fells Point, and she would come back and sing at the Club Tijuana and Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue."

Those nightclubs are gone, but the Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood is home to James Earl Reid's striking statue of the singer, complete with the signature gardenias in her hair.

"On our tours, we always stop the bus by the Billie Holiday statue and people want to get out and see it," Saunders said.

For Holiday's actual centennial Tuesday, Saunders has organized a musical birthday party at the Orchard Street Church, home of the Greater Baltimore Urban League.

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On Pennsylvania Avenue, the 103-year-old Arch Social Club will be the site on Saturday of a re-creation of a program Holiday performed at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 10, 1956, three years before her death.

Producer William Pleasant said the objective of the event "is to get people talking more about Billie Holiday. "And I'm working on taking the show out of Baltimore to New York and Europe," said Pleasant, 56.

Jazz vocalist Denyse Pearson will sing Holiday's Carnegie Hall program in this re-creation.

"Stepping into the role has taken me into the depths of [Holiday's] music and her life," Pearson said. "It's painful to learn about what she went through."

It is difficult to find "definitive truths" about Holiday, said Mark Osteen, professor of English at Loyola University Maryland and co-editor of the 2010 book "Music at the Crossroads: Lives & Legacies of Baltimore Jazz."

"There's still a lot of mystery about her," said Osteen, 61. "She remains elusive, which I guess adds to the idea of the enigmatic Billie Holiday."

The long-held belief that she was born in Baltimore was challenged about 25 years ago with evidence that the singer's unwed mother, Sadie Fagan, left home in Baltimore to have the birth in Philadelphia, returning shortly after. Holiday's estranged father, Clarence Holiday, another Baltimorean, was a jazz musician.

Among the few things known about Holiday's youth — her first name was Eleanora then — is that she was sent to the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls at Calverton Road and Franklin Street at the age of 9 for about nine months, apparently because of truancy.

By 14 or so, Holiday and her mother were living in New York, where the budding singer took the name Billie from silent screen star Billie Dove and added her father's surname. Holiday was soon singing in jazz clubs and, by 18, had made her first commercial recording.

In those early recordings, Osteen said, "Holiday was always behind the beat, which gave it a swing feel. Nothing was rushed. There was something so nonchalant about it."

Holiday enjoyed considerable acclaim during her lifetime, despite the racially insensitive and restrictive times. ("When she toured with Artie Shaw's band, she had to sleep in the bus and sometimes had to use it as her dressing room," Osteen said.) Success away from audiences and the recording studio was more elusive.

"She said that she wanted nothing more than to have a happy home with a man she loved, but it wasn't to be," Holiday's godchild, singer-songwriter Lorraine Feather, wrote in an email to The Sun.

In addition to failed marriages, Holiday went through a much-publicized arrest for narcotics possession in 1947 and prison time.

"My folks both loved her deeply, admired her to the skies, and were very unhappy that no one seemed to be able to help her with her addiction," said Feather, 66. "She wrote them from prison, once on toilet paper when she wasn't allowed to have writing paper."

Holiday continued to have brushes with the law, including an arrest while a patient in a New York hospital a month before her death. She died there of cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959.

Not everyone responded enthusiastically to Holiday in her day, especially her rawer sound in the later years, when a gravelly timbre reflected the toll of drinking and drugs.

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"Honestly, I wasn't that crazy about her as a kid," said Sheila Ford, one of the vocalists taking part in the Orchard Street Church concert. "I associated slow, somber songs with Billie, but I kept listening and had that aha moment when I realized she didn't just sing those kinds of songs. She sang everything. I can listen to her all day long now."

Even in Holiday's earliest records, with their infectious swing and charm, a maturity comes through in the phrasing. The interpretive senses became all the more astute when Holiday wrapped her vocal cords around first-rate songs. And as her singing frayed, it seemed she could communicate all the more deeply.

"The pain of her life, the pain of the moment, is reflected in a less-than-perfect voice perfectly," said Ken Burns, the director and producer whose documentaries include "Jazz" in 2001.

Holiday's singing "is so spectacularly expressive, we are possessed by her world," Burns said.

Eighty-six-year-old Charlotte Geller, a Baltimore resident since 1961, knows what that means.

"In the summer of 1946, I was living in the Bronx and a young man invited me to go with him to a club on East 52nd Street to hear Billie Holiday," Geller said. "I had no idea who she was. But I was very impressed, especially when she sang 'Strange Fruit.' She had such expression in her eyes. I will never forget that look in her eyes. It moved me so much."

Ennis had only a verbal experience with Holiday, but it left a lasting impression, too.

In 1955, a friend of Ennis' took a copy of her first recording with him to New York when he visited Holiday. Ennis laughs about her friend's report on Lady Day's reaction to the album: "Who is that b—— in Baltimore?"

Holiday decided she wanted to speak with Ennis.

"The phone rang very early, around 3 or 4 [a.m.]," Ennis said. "She told me I was a musician's musician, I didn't fake it, and if I kept on singing that way, one day I would be famous. I'm glad I got those thoughts from her. It was almost like passing the torch."

The two singers never met, but Holiday remains a vivid presence for Ennis, especially the late-career Holiday, so compellingly captured in the 1958 album "Lady in Satin."

"That's my bible," Ennis said. "The voice was waning, but you hear the words coming alive. It's almost like watching someone painting a picture, and slowly you see the figures taking shape. Oh, man, it's all there. Having a lovely voice, that's nice, that's icing on the cake. But the cake is what you're after."

Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article.

tim.smith @baltsun. com

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