Who is Bille Holiday (or Halliday) (1915-1959)? That requires a whole book or even two because many of the details of her life are in dispute eg. who's her real father, whom some believe to be a jazz guitarist Clarence Holiday who left her mother shortly after Billie was born although her parents were never formally married. Others say that according to her birth certificate, her father was Frank DeViesse . Whoever it was, she spent her childhood in and out of state "child protection" and eventually ended up working, like her mother, as a prostitute. But she got a natural singing talent and soon started singing at various clubs. By 18, she already had her first record made, with Benny Goodman. Later she teamed up with such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw, and Count Basey. She has an excellent sense of timing and sings in a half conversational style much imitated by lots of other jazz singers, male and female alike and she wrote some of the songs she sang. She has a drug problem and died of pulmonary edema and heart failure in 1959, at the age of 44.
Cassandra Wilson sings in a husky whispering Billie Holiday conversational style voice, punctuated by powerful attacks as the mood requires, thus personalizing traditional blues, country and folk numbers or a combination of them. She says: "I've been in love with Billie Holiday's voice since the moment I heard it and she has inspired me throughout my career". I can well understand her. The moment I heard my first CD of Billie Holiday years ago: her "Lady Sings the Blues", I knew that I was hearing something unique, something great by someone who sings from her heart and for that reason, her voice touches the soul of man. She has some ideas about jazz which may well be shared by anyone who knows anything about jazz history: she says, "The word [jazz] is just a word. It's not my favorite word to use to describe improvisational music that grows from the blues. If you look at the history of the music, how it grows out of an African-American experience, then the music is about freedom. And that is the emotion you need to have to express in the music...I don't have a main inspirer. I inspire myself. There are so many voices to which I have been exposed that are honest and I like to be honest too.... Art has to move forward. If it doesn't, it dies. What I'm doing is more a Billie way of singing...It was not based on dexterity so much as on the roundness of her tone, the color inside the voice. And how much of her life is in that?...You just connect the song with yourself. it's simple."
We had almost 2 hours of non-stop music, much of which was played by Cassandra Wilson's accompanying group of extremely talented musicians consisting of Jon Cowherd (piano), Robby Marshall (saxaphones, clarinet, flute), John Davis (drums) Kevin Breit (guitar) Lonnie Plaxico (Bass) and Charlie Burnham (violin).
The numbers we heard last night are (not necessarily in the order as listed): Don't Explain, Billie's Blues, Crazy He Calls Me, You Go to My head, All of Me, The Way You Look Tonight, Good Morning Heartache, What a little Moonlight Can Do, These Foolish Things, Strange Fruit, I'll be Seeing You, The Last Song, The Mood that I'm in, Them There Eyes.
The moment she stepped on to the stage last night and lifted her arms, I knew that she must be good: the muscles on her upper arms told me that she must have been working out consistently. If one has talent (are two Grammies not sufficient evidence of that?) and is disciplined enough to want to improve, how bad can one be, provided that one has got some talent in the first place of course? I wasn't wrong. She was on target in the way she tried to sing the Billie way, but in a way that doesn't involve losing herself in the process and she got together a fantastic band behind her. I like in particular her pianist John Cowherd who played with real sensitivity to the music and also her saxaphonist, clarinetist and flautist Robby Marshall who spewed what came out from his lungs and lips into whatever instrument that happened to be in his mouth (and sometimes, two instruments at the same time! ) and poured into it his soul. All true musicians know that music is not just a question of technique, which is important of course, but what one downloads from one's heart into the music, something which makes the music not just a series of notes from various instruments, their harmonies and in jazz their unique kind of dissonances and rhythms, but a collective desire to make the music come alive. If that is so, then we had true musicians on our stage last night. It makes all the trouble of advance booking and the sacrifice of considerable loss of time for my dinner etc before the concert seem matters of little consequence.