Billie Holiday sang pop music better than anybody else, ever. She was blessed with enormous natural talent and cursed with so many personal problems that one wonders how she managed to accomplish as much as she did. She died in 1957 at the age of 44, having survived everything except the dreadful demons that drove her to destroy herself.
Now Lady Day has come back, in a sense, to her home town of Baltimore. She may be seen in Center Stage's current production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." There is the same heart-rending loneliness, the same poignant sadness in the voice one hears on her old records. There's also the old bitterness disguised as banter, and the tears behind the laughter. And of course, there are the camellias.
Playwright Lanie Robertson's essay on Holiday astounds because it is utterly unsentimental. In her last years, Holiday was a truly tragic figure but hardly an admirable one. The voice was in shreds, the career devastated by heroin and alcohol addiction, the life a shell of betrayals and blasted hopes. Even then she was beautiful, though her beauty at the end was like the ruin of a once-magnificent temple abandoned to the desert winds.
The English critic Eric Hobsbawm called Holiday the Puccini heroine of jazz singers, whose natural idiom was the pop song. Her unique achievement, he wrote, was to have twisted such paltry material into "a genuine expression of the major passions by means of a total disregard for its sugary tunes, or indeed of anytune other than her own few delicately crying elongated notes, phrased like Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong in sackcloth, sung in a thin, gritty, haunting voice whose natural mood was an unresigned and voluptuous welcome for the pains of love."
Other singers have exploited the woes of personal biography, but probably none had a more truly horrifying life than Holiday. Raped and forced into prostitution at 10, she was a hopeless drug addict by her teens. Men used her, abused her and left her with nothing. Suffering became her profession.
She lived, however, in an era in which audiences were not privy to an artist's private torment. She kept her demons in the closet except when she opened her mouth to sing, and then only let them out dressed in the harlequin costume of pop ditties like "My Old Flame" and "The Sunny Side of the Street." But one did not have to know the gritty details in order to sense the anguish and grief of a tormented woman.
The pleasure of jazz is first and foremost in the emotion it %J generates. Unlike pop, it is serious music but it achieves its effects differently from the way Western classical music does. Its greatest achievement may be simply that it exists at all in a world so apparently bent on expunging the human capacity for spontaneous expression.
Holiday could turn the most insignificant tune into an elegy of longing, a sly come-on or a searing indictment depending on how the mood struck her -- not the mood the composer intended, nor even the mood in which she walked on stage, but the feeling she was having right at the instant she opened her mouth to sing, straight from the heart.
Pamela Isaacs, the actress who plays Lady Day at Center Stage, doesn't look like Holiday, nor even sound like her. The resemblance is all in the intensity of the emotions she projects -- volcanic, unpredictable, by turns shocking and endearing.
Holiday on stage had the magnetism of a Maria Callas and a similar talent for provoking scandal, too. But unlike Callas, the controversies Holiday ignited were not inspired so much by how she sang as by who she was -- a black woman endowed with unfathomable gifts of expression in a world still too small-minded and twisted by vindictiveness and envy ever to feel completely comfortable with her genius.
Holiday never wished for the music she made to become "respectable." She recognized that the tunes given her to sing were the musical cast-offs of less talented white performers. Certainly she never aspired to sing opera. And yet what made her a true diva was the same thing that made Callas the greatest operatic personality of the century. It was the ability to translate all the subtle shades of frustration, grief, sorrow, joy and ecstasy into musical terms and stamp them with a uniquely personal and wholly original character. That was her indisputable genius, and why it is impossible not to hate the world that finally crushed it.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.