With improvisational style, she invented her life



Robert O'Meally.

Arcade/Little, Brown.

207 pages. $29.95. Accurately introduced as a biographical essay, "Lady Day" delivers a well-planned work of limited length and scope. But it is marred by analysis laden with adulation of the singer, enshrining her on a too-lofty level.

Robert O'Meally, tapping numerous sources in composing his five-part essay, says its "central point is that . . . she was able to invent for herself a shining identity as an artist."

Much is made of this great jazz singer's efforts to invent representations of parts of her life and, at will, to improvise, refurbish or redefine such images. Those actions collectively determine the author's choice of subtitle: "The Many Faces of Billie Holiday."

Several myths were stated in Holiday's autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues," including misstatements about her birthplace -- Philadelphia, not Baltimore, although after her birth the infant Eleanora indeed was taken by her mother to Baltimore, hometown of both mother and father. Such myths were reiterated, in part, in the glossy movie of the same title, and elsewhere. Several reliable sources are available, however, including "Billie's Blues," the well-researched biography by the British writer John Chilton.

Dr. O'Meally, a professor of English and American studies at Barnard College, offers a lyrical paean to Holiday's style, phrasing, rhythmic skill and lilting inflections -- praise that barely falls short of fulsomeness -- and credits her with having invented "a shining identity."

That identity, the never-duplicated style, was surely her invention, or creation. It was not easily acquired, and the glamorously gowned, smiling performer, despite having earned acclaim, never had a best-selling record. But her urge to press forward, to achieve -- despite personal problems, some self-inflicted -- persisted until her final few days.

Holiday's name and career development have special relevance to the East Coast, particularly in this city, since she grew up in East Baltimore, living with her mother, Sara Harris, or Mrs. Sara Gough, on Bond Street in Fells Point. Billie's name from the time of her birth on April 7, 1915, was Eleanora Gough; the father was Clarence Holiday, a guitarist with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra and a Baltimore native.

As Eleanora, she began singing in Fells Point after-hours clubs ZTC for tips and applause at age 13. She always said she was born in Baltimore, and repeated it in her autobiography. But her baptismal certificate, issued in 1925 when she spent a year in the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, in Baltimore -- duplicated in "Lady Day" -- shows that she was born in a Philadelphia hospital.

The informal singing was continued in New York City when Eleanora was 15, after she moved there to join her mother. Using now the name Billie, she began making frequent tours of the Harlem jazz clubs, often with her father, meeting and jamming with musicians.

By age 18, her singing style basically was formed. Record producer John Hammond, intrigued by what he heard, added her to his roster of discoveries. That year, 1933, under Hammond's guidance, she made her first recording with studio musicians who included the young Benny Goodman.

She sang with the Duke Ellington orchestra in 1935 in a movie entitled "Symphony in Black," and performed the song "Big City Blues (The Saddest Tale)," an Ellington composition. Far more significant were her touring in 1938 with the all-white Artie Shaw orchestra, and her sizable number of recordings over a seven-year span with pianist Teddy Wilson and other musicians.

Dr. O'Meally's research, embellished with many striking photos, delineates three distinct phases of the singer's career: early, informal vocal training and development; formation of the famed rhythmic, improvisational style; and maturity in which her singing became more somber and dramatic, as in the stark lyrics of "Strange Fruit," which dealt with lynchings of blacks.

The latter phase (1939-1949) was begun when a jazz club, Cafe Society, was opened in Greenwich Village. The owner, Barney Josephson, broke the long-standing color line by welcoming audiences of both blacks and whites. Holiday was in the opening show in December 1939 and continued to perform at the club more than a year.

Dr. O'Meally's tribute to Holiday as the "greatest jazz singer in history" does not gloss over the numerous personal problems that plagued her, such as heroin addiction, unfortunate marriages to men who used and abused her, and sexual encounters with both men and women.

As for the author's hyberbolic assertion of Holiday's all-time greatness -- valid as his opinion, but obviously imponderable -- the names of other jazz greats come inevitably to mind:

What about Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Anita O'Day, Chris Connor, Carmen McRae, Aretha Franklin and the late Sarah Vaughan? Musicians and jazz buffs may dispute some of these names and add others.

In discussing Holiday's unique style, Dr. O'Meally offers views of musicians and singers including Ms. McRae, and jazz critics, along with his own.

Holiday, in an interview by Mr. Chilton, said: "I wanted Louis Armstrong's feeling, and I wanted the big volume that Bessie Smith got. But I found it didn't work with me because I didn't have a big voice. . . . So anyway, between the two of them I sort of got Billie Holiday."

The essence of her impact is the legacy of style, improvisation, inflection and spontaneity that she developed during her early years and subsequently burnished to unforgettable luster. Neither troubled youth nor racial barriers, bad marriages or torments of drug abuse could erase what she had already created. The last of those negatives obviously did lessen her artistic powers and shorten her life.

The closing part of "Lady Day," captioned "Lady at the Met," refers not to some grand recital hall but instead to New York City's Metropolitan Hospital, where she died in July 1959 at age 44.

Mr. Freeny is a writer living in Baltimore.

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