In the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to talk to groups, often senior citizens, at libraries and community centers. And although I started out with literary subjects (Frank O’Connor, William Maxwell, Sylvia Townsend Warner) I decided I might have much more fun talking about Louis, Billie, and Fats. And that has been the case.
Last Friday morning, I spent a pleasant ninety minutes at the JCC (that’s the Jewish Community Center) in Commack, talking about Billie Holiday to a large group of serious, receptive people. Of course I played “Miss Brown to You,” “Now They Call It Swing,” “Back in Your Own Backyard,” “Strange Fruit,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and the kinescope from The Sound of Jazz where Billie sings “Fine and Mellow.” I talked about Billie’s Baltimore chum who described her as “don’t-careish,” about Linda Kuehl, Artie Shaw, Lester Young, Count Basie, John Hammond, about gin and heroin, about Louis McKay and Joe Guy, about the jukebox phenomenon that made Billie’s Thirties sessions possible, about Milt Gabler and Billy Crystal.
And the people in the audience were good listeners. They swayed and rocked to the beat of “Now They Call It Swing,” and one woman in the front softly sang along with “Back in Your Own Backyard.” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Strange Fruit” left them appropriately silent, awed.
But this posting isn’t about my talk so much as it is about the questions it provoked. “Was Billie Holiday Jewish?” (No, I’m afraid not.) “Did she have any formal training?” (Ditto. She didn’t need it, did she?)
The best colloquy came from a well-dressed woman with brown hair and lively eyes. When I mentioned the blessed name of Hot Lips Page, this woman — twenty rows back — got elated and shot me a huge grin. I stopped and said, “You know about Lips Page?” and her grin got wider. I told her that she had to come up after the talk to receive a hug.
Well, she did and I did . . . and it turned out that her parents, who ran twenty-four hour candy / convenience stores, were both mad for music. Although she was raised as an Orthodox Jew, her mother had taken her and her younger brother to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve to hear the holy music. Her first piano teacher was Conrad Janis. And she recalled other kinds of holiness: Tuesday night jam sessions at Eddie Condon’s, the Suyvesant Casino, the Central Plaza. Oh, to have had those experiences! And I hope she reads this blog. Whoever you are, dear lady, you made my day. Thank you!
P.S. The photograph of Billie with her dog comes from http://www.ladyday.net, “The Unofficial Billie Holiday Website,” which has other lovely photographs.