Tag Archives: Coney Island

BILLIE, IN BETTER LIGHT

I’m glad that a number of my readers found the nearly-prurient Carl Van Vechten photographs of Billie Holiday equally disturbing.  I needed to put something in their place. 

Earl Hines told Whitney Balliett in a New Yorker Profile, “Sunshine always opens out,” his way of saying that good fortune eventually finds you, and today it found me in the shape of a pleasant email from Erik Svinding Olsen, alerting me to his Billie Holiday site — he’s been a devoted listener for more than fifty years now.  Erik’s site has a wonderful discography, among other pleasures, and although he doesn’t attempt to list every CD issue of every song (something that often results in pages of label / number listings for something like the Decca LOVER MAN) his discography contains recordings I had never heard of.  It’s clear and well-organized: you can search by date, by song, by musicians, etc.  I’ve listed his site on my blogroll: http://www.holiday.eriksol.dk/

Erik also told me about another site devoted to Miss Holiday, a site that I find frankly astonishing — for its photographs.  Most of the books devoted to Billie reproduce the same studies — often they are moody portraits with the inevitable gardenia.  But Mike Lubbers of the Netherlands, the Holiday-collector behind this enterprise has found more pictures of Billie than I had imagined . . . a few of them copies of newspaper clippings, and many of them still pictures from her appearances in SYMPHONY IN BLACK, NEW ORLEANS, film shorts and television shows. 

But there are more than twelve hundred photographs of Billie, beginning with a snapshot of her as a cheeful teenager on the beach at Coney Island and ending with photographs of the crowd at her funeral.  This trove can be found here: http://www.billieholiday.be/

I have contented myself with only a few photographs from this site — to not seem too greedy among Mike’s treasures — but they nearly offset the Van Vechtens for me.  If I have chosen a number of portraits (mostly candid) that show Billie alongside other famous musicians and singers, can you blame me? 

Here’s Billie the writer, presumably working on her “autobiography,” LADY SINGS THE BLUES, in June 1956. 

And a frankly posed shot, to make it seem as if she was earnestly blue-penciling her own galleys (or proofs?).  I couldn’t ignore it because of the Fifties prop: she’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses, the sure sign of the writer, the intellectual.  Editing your autobiography can’t be done without the proper plumage: in this case, sparkly dangling earrings.   

This somewhat grainy newspaper photograph is a relief . . . because it is in some way far more real.  Is it that Billie has asked Frank — who said he owed so much to her singing — for his autograph?  Whatever the story, this photograph was taken, or published, on May 26, 1944.

I have no fondness for any of Billie’s men, who seem to have treated her poorly, but at least she looks happy here with Louis McKay, in May 1954. 

A candid photograph taken at the home of Billie and Louis McKay, December 1951.  If it’s caution, wariness, or skepticism in her sideways glance and slightly raised eyebrow, she looks far more relaxed, even girlish, than she ever did under Van Vechten’s gaze.

Billie with a happy Count Basie in July 1948, during their appearances at the Strand Theatre in New York City. 

A very hip trio in Billie’s dressing room, September 1949.  Does Billie’s dog know who’s there?  Of course!  (Louis loved dogs.)  Billie looks as if she is just about to burst into laughter — always a happy sight. 

In December  1945, at the Onyx Club — from left, Sarah Vaughan (travelling in fast company), Louis, Billie, and someone whose face is vaguely familiar but elusive.  At ease, even when assembled for a “candid” photograph and facing a flashbulb.

Billie at Orly Airport in Paris, November 1958.  Again, it’s a posed photograph, with a good deal of failed “spontaneity” in the artificial tilt of her head and the rather forced smile — but she looks more at ease than we would have expected.

I wouldn’t call them old friends — late in life, Teddy Wilson insisted that he would have preferred another girl singer, Beverly “Baby” White, for those awe-inspiring Brunswicks and Vocalions — but they certainly had a long association.  By this time, Teddy no longer wanted to be anyone’s sideman, and Billie may have found his precision a bit restrictive, but here they are at the first Newport Jazz Festival on July 18, 1954.  (Many more pictures exist of this pair at this concert.)

Another pianist worthy of our attention: Billie and Art Tatum, taken at the Downbeat Club in December 1946.  (Photographs of Tatum are rare, and I thought he and Billie were captured only at the Metropolitan Opera House jam session in 1944.)  Tatum seems unfazed by the ornamentation atop Billie’s hat, and that the photographer has posed them outside of the Ladies’ — but we have to catch our legends where we may.

Something else I didn’t know: that Billie and Lester had appeared at a series of outdoor New York City concerts in July 1957.  Lester looks dubious, Billie guarded, but I hope it’s nothing more than that they were trading bad stories about the promoter or one of the sidemen.  It would break my heart if they were glaring at each other.

Since Billie has often been presented as an iconic figure of sadness, of self-destruction, I thought I would conclude with two photographs where she looks unaffectedly happy, not posing at being happy for someone’s camera.  If you didn’t know she was the famous “doomed” artist, would you see it in her strong, amused face?  This shot was taken at a session for Verve (or Clef?) in June 1956. 

Late in her life — December 1958 — but taking her ease at Tony Scott’s house. 

Heartfelt thanks to Erik Svindling Olsen, to Mike Lubbers, to Billie Holiday and all the people who love her and treat her properly, even fifty years after her death.

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LOUIS, AN ECSTATIC EXPERIENCE

louis-posterSam Parkins, bless him, sent me the backstory (or is it “prequel”?) to his 1945 Louis experience, which I posted as LOUIS AND “THAT MODERN MALICE”:

A note from now – January 2009: It’s impossible to overstate Louis’ nearly-vanished position in the early 40s, when I came into jazz sentience.  To us hep-cats he was only slightly more ‘there’ than Alphonse Picou (whom no one had heard of).  We’d heard of Louis, but he hadn’t mattered for years.  I did have a high school classmate who kept a wind-up Victrola and some 78s in the garage, but when he tried playing me some red-label Columbia Hot Fives they didn’t register so he gave up.  Benny and Duke (oh all right – and Glenn Miller) were pretty nearly all there was.

So the following trip was – well – a trip: 1945 was a hell of a year.  A half-dozen big things happened: I got drafted, Roosevelt died, VE day, I heard Louis Armstrong for the first and almost last time (drunk in Geneva – the other time – doesn’t count), VJ day, Bird and Diz first record, Stravinsky writes “The Ebony Concerto” for the Woody Herman band… I was let out of basic training end of March just after VE day and given a chance to go back to college for engineering.  Seemed vastly superior to heading for the Pacific so I didn’t tell them I had already switched to a music major at Cornell, and fetched up at the University of Kentucky, where the girl/boy ratio was 5-1.  Cool.

I’d been there three days – and met a girl acquaintance downtown on the main (and only) drag by the drugstore. Saturday afternoon.  There’s no possibility of transcribing this but I’ll try: “Yawgnjlnnye?”  It evolved that Louis Armstrong was playing at the Joyland Ballroom that night and was I going?  Joyland was the classic American amusement park and ballroom, built by the trolley company, always at the end of line to get customers out on weekends.  Think Coney Island.  So I took her.  At least I took her, bought tickets and got her in the door.  Then Louis started to play and I was rooted to the floor in front of the stage, which was high, at shoulder level (a good idea if there’s a riot – and I’ve been in one, at a wedding where the bride was Irish and the groom Polish.  High stage saved the band).  Never saw the girl again. (But I did see one of the dancers.  Barefoot guy, nearly seven feet tall, very long – past shoulder length – hair, in an era where that simply wasn’t done.  Guy stood out.  Jitterbugging like hell.  Must have still been with girl; asked her “Whoozat?”  “Oh – that’s a hillbilly. They come down from Harlan County.”    Ferociousest lookin’ guy I ever saw).

Rooted to the floor with tears streaming down my cheeks.  Louis could play one note and destroy me.  Never ever let up.  This was his traveling big band, one nighters all over the country, and this was the South, where by all accounts the going was rough for a black band.  He could – and I think this was true all his life – only play and sing wide open. And that doesn’t mean loud.  “Commitment and Abandon”?  This is it.

I look over my long life in music and can think of only one comparable experience.  Bob Palmer, our composition teacher at Cornell, took us – his class of four would-bes – up to Eastman to hear Frederick Fennell conduct the student orchestra in Bartok’s “Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste”.  Bartok had just died, and his music immediately spread like a tidal wave everywhere.  Erased everyone else for a few years.  At the end of the performance Fennell asked the audience, “Would you like to hear it again?”  Of course we would.  At the end of the second go-’round I nearly fainted – had to be partly carried to the door.  Too much emotion.

(And folks – tell me: can any of the other arts do that to you?).

Stoned: Like most bands in the ballroom era, Louis only took one break – no more that a half-hour.  His arranger had his office across the hall from Big Nick’s studio over the Savoy in Boston; when I was about to leave for the army he said, “If you run into Louis on the road, say ‘Hi’ for me”.  So at intermission I went back stage, found Louis’ road manager, flashed the arranger’s name (which I’ve forgotten) and asked for an autograph (on my gold-rimmed union card – issued when drafted, dues suspended).  He disappears, comes back with Louis and introduces me.  Louis reaches out his hand to shake, and I really shouldn’t try to transcribe this one.  Guttural utterances, no recognizable words at all.  I thing he was working on “pleasedtameetcha”.  So wrecked he couldn’t talk.  (Now you know why he needed Joe Glaser).  But he could play and sing like an angel.  (All sources including All-Star players I know agree that it was mostly pot.  He did drink a little Slivovitz, but only at parties).

I asked my father (doctor) about this phenomenon and he told me about a colleague, brain surgeon, deep in the toils of senile dementia – and still able to do the most delicate surgery.  Dad said that what ever you’ve spent your life doing day in and day out is so embedded in the brain (sounds like a back-up circuit) that it’s often available when everything else has packed it in.  Regarding music against speech – nowdays we would say that speech is left lobe and music right, and right is apparently more durable.

So what do I close the 20th century with?  Only Louis and his idol Caruso (played on a wind-up Victrola on the original discs please.  Anything more modern destroys his soul; digital buries him) have the ability to by-pass hearing.

They go straight to the gizzard and shake it up mercilessly.

A note from a grateful reader: now you see why I praise Sam as a writer — intent, exuberant, apparently heedless but knowing what he’s up to all the time.