(Photo by Mito Habe-Evans.)
Today is Billie Holiday's 100th birthday. Imagine that.
To celebrate her centennial, I will be in residence every Tuesday in April at Minton's performing rare sides with a stellar coterie of musicians: Noah Jackson (bass), Charles Goold (drums), Warren Smith (drums), Patience Higgins (tenor sax), Wayne Tucker (trumpet) and J. Walter Hawkes (trombone), with Jeremy Bacon (piano and MD). Thankfully, Talvin Wilks has joined us to shape what we've assembled. I've been working on several projects about Billie Holiday for some time
now, so my research is extensive. This residency feels like a natural
extension of all that work, a highly creative way to get all those ideas
out of my head and into the world.
Of course, rare sides means rare songs, so the audience will definitely experience material they've probably never heard in performance. I took this idea one step further and reconfigured different aspects of Lady Day's body of work, to see her in a new light. For tonight's special moment, I will recreate her Broadway debut Holiday on Broadway -- a revue that included Billy Taylor, the founder of Jazzmobile -- which opened on April 27, 1948 in the wake of her first Carnegie Hall performance.
I know that there are many who dismiss Miss Holiday as a drug addict who led a tragic life but the truth is, that could be the byline for just about any successful, brilliant musician in the past 100 years. Nevermind all the jazz musicians that are infamous for their drug fueled debauchery and their tragic lives -- Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk. Stravinsky, as it turns out, was quite the drug addict. Chopin was addicted to opium and dosed it every day with sugar cubes. Leonard Bernstein? Painkillers.
It's very difficult (read: virtually impossible) for the world to openly acknowledge black female genius, to say that black women are brilliant. Focusing on Lady Day's drug use and the things that went wrong in her life is a convenient way to ignore her musicianship and how it literally changed the world. Consider this: She got her first paid singing job at 14. John Hammond discovered her at 18. By the time she was 25, she had recorded well over 120 songs with the best jazz musicians of our time -- most of which are classics now. She toured with Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Teddy Wilson's big bands. Impossible but true: She recorded Strange Fruit in 1939 at the age of 22. (!!!)
This is the Billie Holiday I have come to know and respect -- and yes, love: an exceptionally beautiful, disturbingly brilliant, highly creative genius musician and songwriter who was as tough as any situation demanded, because that's just how vulnerable she really was.
If you want to celebrate Billie Holiday on the day of her birth, we'll see you tonight at Minton's. For reservations and information, please click here.