No figure in American music led a more interesting, troubled and tragic life than Billie Holiday.
She was the tortured soul of jazz, whose breaking heart could be heard in every note she sang. She had a childhood of pain and privation and struggled throughout her life with drug addiction, racial discrimination and violent relationships — yet she managed to create an unforgettable, timeless body of work.
Holiday, who was often called “Lady Day,” would seem to be a natural subject for a first-rate biography, but for some reason that has not been the case. The best of a mediocre lot is perhaps Donald Clarke’s “Wishing on the Moon,” published in 1994. In this, Holiday’s centennial year — she was born April 7, 1915 — music scholar John Szwed has come forward with a new study, which he describes as not “a biography in the strictest sense, but rather a meditation on her art and its relation to her life.”
An anthropologist and one-time jazz musician who has taught at Columbia and Yale, Szwed is best known for his biographies of Miles Davis and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax,who traveled the country recording folk music. Szwed’s book on Holiday is a series of essays that does not purport to be a biographical chronicle or even a coherent narrative.
In his first section, Szwed seeks to correct public perceptions of Holiday, created largely through her often inaccurate 1956 autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues.” In the first paragraph of the autobiography, Holiday and her co-author, William Dufty, memorably wrote: “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was seventeen, and I was three.” Every “fact” in that sentence, Szwed demonstrates, is untrue.
Holiday was born when her mother was 19 and her father 17, and her parents were never married. Szwed revives several passages omitted from “Lady Sings the Blues” for legal reasons, including evidence of Holiday’s apparent affairs with Orson Welles and with various women.
In a sense, Holiday’s life was one long spiral toward tragedy, but Szwed seldom takes biographical advantage of the rich documentary material he finds. The most interesting sections of this diffuse and poorly conceived book are two chapters in which Szwed analyzes Holiday’s singing style.
“Billie Holiday’s voice is odd,” he writes, “indelibly odd, and so easy to recognize, but so difficult to describe.” He shows how Holiday emphasized certain notes and words, how she deliberately lagged behind the beat as she sang, and how she took improvisational liberties with melody and meter.
Her singing may not have been acrobatic, but it was original, subtle and deeply communicative. “Holiday’s songs get much of their affective and emotional power,” Szwed writes, “from her ability to create the feel of simultaneously speaking and singing.”
But illuminating passages like these are all too rare. Instead, Szwed wanders around the periphery of Holiday’s art without taking us inside.
In his final chapters, Szwed examines some of Holiday’s better-known songs and her history with various record labels, but his dutiful, catalog-like style is heavy going for anyone who isn’t a specialist or a Holiday fanatic.
Szwed’s goal, he writes, was to use new archival sources to cast light on Holiday’s art, and to a certain extent he succeeds. But he also admits to a strange paternal instinct toward his subject: “I also found myself wanting to defend her, hoping to give her a new hearing in the court of biographical opinion.”
In the end, like so many others, he fails to solve the mystery of Lady Day. For all the drama in her life and the magic in her music, Billie Holiday remains elusive and alluring, just beyond the reach of words.
Matt Schudel, a Washington Post staff writer, often writes about jazz.
“Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth,” by John Szwed. (230 pages; Viking; $28.95)