Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Billie Holiday Post Script 2: Carnegie Hall, 1956 -- The Refracted Set

On Tuesday night at Minton's Harlem, with a wonderfully enthusiastic audience (another full house!) and my coterie of musicians, I deconstructed Billie Holiday's last Carnegie Hall concert from November 10, 1956, which was created to promote her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues. Instead of reading from the book, I read from bits and pieces of ephemera I found at the New York Public Library.  It was a stellar night.

The next time you think of Billie Holiday as a victim and a heroin addict first instead of a genius musician, there are a few explosively noteworthy trainwrecks that you should reconsider, too. Frank Sinatra -- who openly admitted that everything he knew as a jazz vocalist he got from Lady Day -- was a violent alcoholic, addicted to painkillers and, some say, bipolar. Thelonious Monk drank, smoked pot and did drugs to excess. And yes, he had bipolar disorder.  Charlie Parker's propensity towards drug excess was legendary.  Miles Davis. Need I say more?

Nevermind infamous jazz musicians -- everybody knows about them. What about common drug usage?  During the Victorian era, laudanum -- a mix of 10% opium and 90% alcohol and flavored with cinnamon or saffran -- was especially popular.  And why not? It had been popular with the Greeks in antiquity. The Victorians used it to cure menstrual cramps, headaches, as a tranquilizer, even fed it to cranky babies. Everybody drank this stuff.  Keats. Shelley.  Dickens. Louis Carroll.  It was as common and as socially acceptable as scotch -- and much cheaper.  Not surprisingly, it was the beginning of the 20th century before they realized it was lethal.

And the rest? Chopin did opium drops on sugar cubes every day.  Leonard Bernstein was heavily addicted to alcohol, drugs and painkillers, quite possibly because of his latent homosexuality -- or heterosexuality, depending on who you ask. Stravinsky was horribly addicted to all kinds of medications.  Contrary to popular belief, Miss Holiday was hardly the only one on a landscape of creative individuals that drank, smoked pot, did drugs and led what many consider to be a tragic life.  (Charles Mingus? Louis Armstrong? Bessie Smith? What black jazz musician led a life that wasn't tragic in some way?) Everyone had their fair share of misery but for some strange reason, no one else's addictions are listed before their achievements.  Probably because of the media hype that sensationalizes every foul aspect of What Happened To Her -- along with that ridiculous, cockamamie biopic starring Diana Ross -- we are left to view her as a hapless victim. No one seems particularly interested in focusing on her accomplishments, which are nothing short of incredible.

 Well. I'm interested.

Join me next week at Minton's, where my April residency in tribute to Lady Day continues. For more information, click here.

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