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Lady or the Tramp
The Billie Holiday Myth in a Different Light

Farah Jasmine Griffin was sitting in the dark at New York City's Lincoln Center a few years ago enjoying a jazz performance by vocalist Cassandra Wilson. "I love music," says the Penn English professor. "I love people trying to make something out of sound." She especially loves the spontaneity of live jazz: the risks musicians take and the unexpected sounds that sometimes come out of it. "They all start from the same place--they all have the same melody--but they're going to just take off and go to different places with it."

As Wilson's voice curled like smoke above the hushed audience, three lines of poetry lit up suddenly in Griffin's mind. A muffled clutter-clatter intruded on the smoldering notes the singer was making as Griffin rooted through the contents of her purse for pen and paper. She needed to record the words before they slipped away into the dark again.

When the performance ended and the lights came on, Griffin blinked and read what she had blindly scrawled: "And on the horizon,/ There is a new moon rising,/ I hear."

"That's the end of the book," she remembers thinking. At the time she had already been working on the manuscript for a number of years--most of her life, if you consider that Billie Holiday, the subject of her study, had charmed and frightened and filled her head with sounds and stories since she was a little girl. "I don't know how I'm going to get from where I am to these lines, but that's the end." Like a horn player at a midnight jam session, she had set out on an extended solo improvisation and now had to trust her instincts and her skill. If she just listened to the music she was making with words, she told herself, it would carry her to the end. If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday is due for publication in the spring.

One Dimensional Icon

Born in Philadelphia General Hospital--as was Billie Holiday--Griffin grew up in the same working-class neighborhood in South Philly that her parents lived in all their lives. "They were big jazz fans," she says. "I grew up in a household where jazz was played a lot." Her family called her Jazzy, and her father had acquired a sizable collection of jazz records. "My mother always talked about having seen Billie Holiday at some of the Philly jazz clubs." In her files Griffin keeps yellowed photos of the jazz queen clipped from the Philadelphia Bulletin and the Daily News. "My parents loved her music, and I heard it all the time."

Philadelphia has long been a sophisticated jazz town. Skilled instrumentalists like the Heath brothers emerged from the ranks of musicians born there, while others, such as legendary sax player John Coltrane, came there to live and perform in the constellation of clubs with their hip and informed jazz fans. For years, it was one of the few cities that could support a 24-hour jazz radio station. "It makes perfect sense that Holiday would have an ongoing relationship with the appreciative audiences in Philly," Griffin observes.

Her book is an "autobiographical meditation" that searches the significance of Holiday as an icon. The author wrestles with the prevailing myth, spawned by a sensation-driven media, that casts the troubled singer as a tragic victim--and little more. It's the "little more" that she takes issue with.

Elenora Fagan, who later changed her name and became one of America's greatest jazz vocalists, ascended to stardom from the Baltimore slums, the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate mother. She bucked mightily against the crass racism of her era, which dogged her all her life. "I ain't gonna be no goddamn maid," she resolved. Physically and sexually abused as a child, she was a prostitute by age 12 in a waterfront whorehouse, where she earned extra money singing in the parlor. Even after gaining acclaim for her fresh and unusual style, Holiday lived a full-throttled life of drinking, gambling, brawling, cursing, bisexual promiscuity, and drug abuse, which included heroin addiction. "Some say 'Billie, baby, you're built for speed,'" she sang in Billie's Blues, one of her own compositions. She had a predilection for trusting men who preyed on her professionally and personally. A long-time acquaintance once called her "just don't-carish," a locution that perfectly expresses her fierce independence and the reckless lifestyle that took back the success she'd achieved and left her dead by the age of 44.

Anyone who wants to understand Holiday has to deal with the neon glare of the tragic-victim icon, now entrenched in the popular mind. A more discerning appreciation of what Griffin unabashedly calls "this complex musical genius" demands that we switch off the tawdry light and listen to the music Lady Day has made.

As a young girl becoming aware of her own intellectual and creative powers, Griffin was casting about for models of strong, independent-minded black women. Billie Holiday was successful, gifted, defiant, beautiful, and glamorous--an irresistible mix for the aspiring young writer. About the time she read Holiday's own sensationalized story, Lady Sings the Blues, and viewed the Diana Ross movie by the same title, a wave of drug activity had broken over her neighborhood and much of the nation's black urban communities. "I could see a lot of people I knew fall prey to it," she recalls. "If the version of Billie Holiday that I was getting was the only version, it was a pretty scary one." Griffin needed more than a victim, and she has struggled to compose a different, more nuanced, more complete version ever since.

"I don't want to deny the tragic dimension of her life," she declares, "but I think there's this other dimension: having an artistic vision, being committed to it, taking whatever is tragic in one's life--as well as the joy--and creating something out of it." We may be forced to start with a one-dimensional version of the Billie Holiday legend, but we can also take off with it and go to different places too.

Portrait of a Lady

The story of Holiday's self-destructive life can serve as a warning for young African American women trying to create their own way, but it was the music that first enchanted Griffin. "Her voice was like nothing I'd ever heard, and I didn't even know if I liked it. It was strange; it was different; it was compelling. I figured I must like it because I kept wanting to hear it. I didn't have a clue why."

Holiday was a major innovator and the mother of modern jazz singing. Passionately and intelligently devoted to her craft, she worked with some of the top jazz musicians of her day. All of them respected her artistry. Some found themselves on the receiving end of her withering profanity when they failed to produce the sound she was going for.

She had a tiny vocal range, slightly more than an octave, but within those limits she created something unique, making startling and unexpected choices in phrasing and timing and melody. The new sound was at once confusing and compelling. She sang just behind the beat, ahead of the beat, and all around the notes, bending them exquisitely to shape a sound that molded the human heart along subtle contours of feeling. She could take the most banal lyrics from throw-away songs and with that voice submerge hearers beneath a fragile, aching melancholy or lift them into the bliss of toe-tapping joy. "She makes songs her own," Griffin remarks. "They aren't the same songs anymore, once she's done with them. All good jazz musicians do that."

Lady's Legacy

Despite the misfortune of her birth, Holiday made astonishing music; despite her tiny voice, she invented new ways to play the instrument of the human voice, changing forever the way that jazz is sung. "A vision of possibility in spite of the obstacles that seek to limit and in some cases destroy us"--that, writes Griffin, is the lesson Billie Holiday leaves. "Sometimes she was a victim, sometimes she was not. Always she was a woman committed to her craft. To be talented, black, sensual and complex does not have to lead to addiction, a life of unhealthy relationships and an early, tragic death."

In the history of jazz, Lady Day stands as an important ancestor figure, Griffin says, and those who've come after have built their houses upon the foundation that she laid. Her impact, though, far exceeds the world of jazz. Vocalists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Joni Mitchell claim to have been influenced by her artistry. Griffin points out that Holiday's musical genius has inspired the playing of trumpeter Miles Davis, and novelists and poets have also reported that she helped shape how they practice the craft of writing. "She left this legacy for lots of different artists," Griffin comments, "and they take it up and do lots of different things with it."

As she listened to Cassandra Wilson singing at Lincoln Center years ago, Griffin called to mind the title of the jazz vocalist's previous CD--New Moon Daughter--which probably ignited the poetry that concludes her book. "I think it was because I saw her as an inheritor of Holiday's legacy who was adding her own spin and doing things, reaching for and getting opportunities, that women in jazz had not had in Holiday's day. She was not only singing, but heading her band and premiering her interpretation of classics as well as some of her own compositions. So I knew that wherever this book was going, it was going to end on this allusion to Cassandra Wilson."

After tracing the lineage of musical heirs who've issued from jazz ancestor Billie Holiday, Griffin closes her book with poetry that is expectant and full of hope:

And, on the horizon,
There is a new moon rising,
I hear.

It goes without saying that Griffin stands upon the foundation laid by Lady Day. She too is an heir of the jazz queen's toughness and artistic integrity, a new moon daughter, and the edifice built by the working-class black girl from South Philly who took herself seriously as a thinker and a writer amounts to more than just scholarship. "I felt like her music spoke to me," she confides.

In her book she writes: "Honesty, Spirit, Emotion, Intellect. These are the words that come to mind when I think about Billie Holiday after listening closely to her body of work." The words are about character and evoke the light of the sacred, which Griffin senses in jazz. Attending with reverence a live performance, listening to the ritual of the jam session--these are like going to church, she testifies quietly. Much more than a model, Holiday made music that molds the heart of listeners, imprinting on them a suppleness to feel the stings of pain and joy, and a toughness to endure the ache of both. In her music and in the jazz tradition resound the strains of redemption.

In his introduction to Jazz: A History of America's Music, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns wrote that "a message of hope and transcendence" is alive in this music. "The true story of jazz," he continues, "which can never be fully told, is the story of a million nights when, against all odds, men and women of all colors and often astonishing gifts came together and made great art."

Griffin closes the acknowledgments portion of her new book with a glance back down the long lineage of jazz singers, horn players, and other instrumentalists that Lady Day is part of. "Finally, to all the musicians of this extraordinary tradition," she writes, "thank you, thank you, thank you."

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