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.