Billie Holiday’s iconic voice dripped with life experience, and with good reason. The jazz and blues star’s 44 short years were littered with rape, child prostitution, addiction, rehab, prison – and international recognition for being one of last century’s finest singers.

That is the opening of a news story in a UK paper — reviewing another singer’s Billie Holiday tribute.  Here it is: no invention.  I will ignore the prose, though the dripping and the littering suggest that a good tidying-up is needed.

But it raises the usual question for me.  Billie Holiday is perhaps the jazz artist most victimized by posthumous “adulation” I can think of, with Beiderbecke and Parker not far behind.

I know that people are fascinated by the dead — especially those dead men and women who lived dramatically.  And I was raised, as a writer, to think that biographical detail counts, that you can’t entirely be a New Critic and pretend that Keats didn’t die young, that Joseph Cornell didn’t have mad crushes on younger women, that Beverly Kenney did not kill herself.

But when so many searches on JAZZ LIVES are for information about Billie and drugs — not Billie and music — I despair.

For all of those eager people who cannot think of Lady Day without a needle stuck in her arm . . . I would prescribe a course of steady listening to ME, MYSELF, AND I — in both takes.

Could we admire the artist’s work, its beauty, its scope, instead of wanting to make her “iconic” — which means a doomed figure we can morbidly eat and drink?

What if we knew nothing of any artist’s personal life, that he or she had lived in died in serene anonymity?  Would the art still be life-enhancing?

Where does adulation stop and voyeurism (out of whatever motives) begin?

What do we want of these dead people we say we love?

May your happiness increase. 


  1. Stompy Jones

    You’ve hit the nail squarely on the occiput.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. All too often, Lady is remembered for her tumultuous life rather than her perfect, unique sense of time & phrasing, the ebullience & insouciance of her early song interpretations, her cornet-like timbre when she was young, the economy and poignancy of her later work…etc., etc., etc. Those who know, know.

  3. *ETA: and thank you for mentioning Beverly Kenney, one of my all-time favorites!

  4. Cornet exactly. Although there is a good deal of pussycat in there too — the growl, not the purr. And you would know! Till Sunday, pal!

  5. Just bought the four CDs . . . Lorna has been listening to them in the car . . . !

  6. jOhn P. Cooper

    Some people just like to wail and moan.

  7. Thank you for this Michael. I listen to her often. She sings with such feeling how can you think of anything other than her music.

  8. Maybe I’m being a contrarian, but I think it’s important to understand context when appreciating art. Monet’s Water Lilies would be simply ugly masses of color without knowing that he painted it while almost blind. But knowing that his vision was almost gone makes the painting something more than just a depiction of some plants.

    The converse is also true: an artist’s life, devoid of their work, should not be the object of interest. And I think that’s where we all object to celebrity voyeurism.

    I do think there is overanalysis of what events in an artist’s life affect their work. I doubt there is any artist that knows; how can biographers presume? But pointing to tragedy and pain are all part of the cliche when it comes to analyzing brilliant artists. Why not point to the joy and happiness? No idea.

  9. Very wise and balanced — all I want is sensitive appreciation of both art and biography and how they might intersect. Thank you, Julius! Not contrarian at all . . .

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