Tag Archives: Billie Holiday

Jazz Style Icons

It’s all about jazz for me at the moment, in the run-up to the Glasgow Jazz Festival (June 29-July3) and I’ve had to neglect this blog a little  … However, I have – as always – been finding a great deal of style inspiration in jazz –  not so much from the current crop of jazz stars as from the greats of yesteryear. Here’s a selection of some of my favourite style icons, starting, above, with Chet Baker (1929-1988), the James Dean of the jazz world, who wins my style award for services to the white T-shirt .. And below is his one-time band-mate, baritone sax star Gerry Mulligan (1927-1996) who was rarely without a crew cut and Ray-Bans in the 1950s.

Another super-cool jazz musician whose music and style I love is the legendary Lester “Prez” Young (1909-1959), the ethereal-sounding tenor saxophonist who came to fame in Count Basie’s band in the 1930s and made a series of landmark recordings with his friend Billie Holiday. He became a much-feted solo star in the 1950s, and his signature pork-pie hat is as recognisable to jazz fans as Lady Day’s gardenia and Louis Armstrong’s white handkerchief – possibly moreso. So indelibly linked are the Prez and his pork pie hat that Herman Leonard famously took an evocative portrait of Lester Young without Young in it: the pork-pie hat plus the saxophone (and a swirl of cigarette smoke) were enough to suggest their owner’s presence.

As I mentioned, one of the most identifiable accessories in jazz history was Billie Holiday’s (1915-1959) gardenia – which, for a decade from the late 1930s, was a key part of her look. Legend has it that the first gardenia was pinned on her head to cover a patch of hair which had been singed by tongs. It quickly became her trademark..

I also love the hair style she sported for much of the 1950s – the sleeked-back ponytail. This was how she wore her hair in the landmark TV programme, The Sound of Jazz.

Perhaps more of an all-round style icon was the lovely Lena Horne (1917-2010), a woman with exquisite taste and a sense of elegant style that lasted her whole life.  She was known for her turbans and for her gorgeous evening gowns …

Not all of the great jazz style icons have left us: Annie Ross (born 1930), the 80-year-old pioneering jazz vocalist is still performing (she plays in London next week, at the Bluesfest, and in Glasgow’s Oran Mor on July 8). And I haven’t seen a photo of her looking less than stylish. Check out this beautiful portrait from the 1950s.

And I especially love this one: three of my favourite jazz style icons captured on photo as they record the wonderful album Annie Ross Sings a Song of Mulligan (that’s Chet Baker in the middle). Cool in every sense of the word..

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Turban Power 2

This winter I’ve had great use out of my my fabulous ASOS turban, a style of headgear I’ve hankered after for years – after seeing it being worn in many a 1940s movie, by the likes of Ann Sheridan and the sultry Hedy Lamarr (above).  The style was in and out of fashion from the 1920s onwards – and Hedy’s white, 1940s version contrasts beautifully with her jet black hair. I’m not sure that Greta Garbo’s (below) works as well: it looks a little like a post-brain surgery bandage ..

It wasn’t just the exotic beauties who made the turban chic in Hollywood; homegrown, all-American actresses worked the look too. Here’s the elegant and always tasteful Loretta Young pushing the boat out with an uncharacteristically OTT variation on the turban theme. Substitute some fruit for those flowers and you’re halfway to Carmen Miranda-style understatement!

And talking of understatement (not!), few actresses of our time offset instances of good taste with those of bad as blatantly as the late Elizabeth Taylor, pictured here in the sort of turban that normal people could only wear to a wedding..

Lee Remick’s blue turban in The Omen was one of the few style highlights of the movie – though her character paid a price for it ..

And those jazz divas knew a chic trick (saves washing the hair) when they saw one. In my last turban round-up, I featured Lena Horne, but she wasn’t the first jazz star to adopt the style: here’s Billie Holiday, offsetting the turban with a mannish suit, alongside one of the most stylish men in jazz – Duke Ellington (left).

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Style Heroines: Billie Holiday

Jazz legend Billie Holiday has always been a heroine of mine – mainly for her sensational singing, which was by turns gut-wrenchingly moving and terrifically uplifting, but also for her distinctive style.

She was born 95 years ago – on April 7th, 1915 – so now seems a fitting time to pay tribute to the style of Lady Day. Here are a few of my favourite images of her, starting with one of the many 1940s photos of her with her signature gardenia.

The gardenia wasn’t her only form of headgear, though, as this stunning photo, probably taken in the late 1940s, shows.

The style of hat that Holiday was most often photographed wearing, however, was the turban.

Here’s another photo I’d never seen  before – of a particularly chic-looking Holiday. Dig the crazy earrings!

In the mid-late 1950s, in the years running up to her premature death in 1959, Holiday adopted a long, sleek ponytail as a key part of her look. Here it is in action, in the  fantastic Fine and Mellow number from the 1957 Sound of Jazz TV programme..

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Five Star CD Reviews Vol 2

Gerry Mulligan: Lonesome Boulevard (Verve 0602527068756)
Anyone who heard the great baritone saxophonist, composer and bandleader Gerry Mulligan when he played the 1988 Glasgow Jazz Festival will recall that he was a player of terrific elegance and lyricism. Those qualities shine through on every track of this superb 1990 quartet album. Highlights include the train-mad Mulligan’s only recording of the thrilling piece he wrote as composer-in-residence at Glasgow, The Flying Scotsman, which was played with a full big band and recorded by the BBC – though never yet released on CD…
Download: Lonesome Boulevard, The Flying Scotsman
Gerry Mulligan-Paul Desmond Quartet: Blues in Time (Verve 0602517995789)
So busy were the saxophonists Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan in the mid-1950s that it took three years to finally get together to make this classic 1957 recording. Accompanied by Mulligan’s regular, piano-less, rhythm section of bass and drums, the sweet-sounding altoist (Desmond) and the wonderfully lyrical baritone player (Mulligan) prove to be a great team, on the same wavelength yet able to keep the music spontaneous and exciting – as the title track, in particular, shows.
Download: Blues in Time, Standstill
Humphrey Lyttelton and His Band and The Paseo Jazz Band 1953-56 (Upbeat Jazz URCD223)
There’s a great deal of previously unissued material on this CD which features the late, great trumpeter and bandleader Humphrey Lyttelton at the peak of his powers. Among the 24 tracks included here are a trio of terrific recordings he made with London-based West Indian musicians under the name the Paseo Jazz Band, and a quartet of songs recorded with the American vocalist Marie Bryant, best remembered as having sung in the iconic short jazz film Jammin’ the Blues.
Download: Paseo Blues, Georgia On My Mind
Johnny Dodds: Definitive Dodds (Retrieval RTR79056)
Johnny Dodds was the definitive New Orleans-style clarinettist of the 1920s, and this superb new CD comprises the recordings he made over a 15-month period from 1926 – at the peak of his powers. Although the five groups featured have different names, the personnel is drawn from a mouth-watering list of Chicago-based jazz greats including, most notably, Louis Armstrong (trumpet), on whose Hot 5 recordings Dodd was well featured. It’s all great stuff, particularly the Black Bottom Stompers sides, with Barney Bigard on sax and Earl Hines on piano.
Download: Wild Man Blues, Melancholy
Billie Holiday: The Ben Webster/Harry Edison Sessions (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10355)
The recordings on this new double CD are essential listening for anyone with an interest in jazz: they represent the last blast of greatness of the greatest jazz singer of them all, Billie Holiday. Comprising three classic 1956/57 Verve albums (Body and Soul, All Or Nothing At All and the peerless Songs for Distingue Lovers), plus a set from the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, this swinging, soulful, and uplifting CD finds Holiday (who died in 1959) with one of her best line-ups – including Ben Webster (tenor sax), Harry Edison (trumpet), Jimmy Rowles (piano) and Barney Kessel (guitar).
Download: But Not  For Me, Stars Fell From Alabama

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The Gentle Jazz Giant

Lester Young’s tenor sax is - along with Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet – one of the most poignant sounds in jazz. Tinged with melancholy, light as a feather, and utterly beguiling, it was quietly revolutionary in its day because it showed that the muscular tenor style and rich sound of Coleman Hawkins wasn’t the only model worth following, and it paved the way for such Young-inspired players as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Paul Quinichette.
Born in Woodville, Mississippi exactly 100 years ago – on August 27, 1909 - Lester Young was playing music from a very early age. His father, William H Young, was the leader of a carnival band, and Lester and his five siblings were encouraged to learn an instrument so they could join the family business. When his parents split up in 1919, Young, his sister and his brother Lee (a future jazz drummer) went with their father to Minneapolis which became their base for extensive tours with a minstrel show. At this point, drums were Lester Young’s instrument but he gave them up when he was 13 years old.
He later explained: “It was too much trouble to carry the traps, and I got tired packing them up. I’d take a look at the girls after the show, and before I’d get the drums packed, they’d all have gone.” He switched to alto sax but was devastated when his father dropped him from the band and told him that he couldn’t return until he had learned to read music.
After six months, he was reinstated in the outfit but the emotional and psychological effects of being excluded by his own father remained with him for the rest of his life. Any boy would find such treatment difficult to bear, but Young was a particularly sensitive and emotionally fragile soul.
In 1927, upset at the prospect of a tour of the Deep South – where racial prejudice was inevitable – Young, who cut an unusual figure with his light skin (his mother was a Creole), doleful green eyes and vaguely auburn-tinged hair, quit the band and joined a local group where he switched to tenor sax.

After a brief stint with the short-lived but highly regarded Blue Devils, he was working in Minneapolis when, one night, he heard a live broadcast by the Count Basie band from Kansas City. Immediately smitten by everything about the band’s sound except the tenor player, whom he claimed he couldn’t hear, he seems to have had an unusual attack of ballsiness: he wired Basie, and offered his services.

Basie, who had heard about him from other musicians, sent for him and Young joined the band in 1933. Kansas City was a hotbed of jazz activity, and its after-hours cutting contests between local musicians and visiting players were legendary, few moreso than the one which is said to have taken place when Coleman Hawkins blew into town and tried to take on the likes of Herschel Evans, Ben Webster and Lester Young.

When top New York bandleader Fletcher Henderson invited Young to replace Hawkins in his orchestra, Basie advised his ambivalent tenor man to accept the invitation. It wasn’t a good match: Young’s airy sound was lost in amongst the other saxes who were used to playing with the altogether more forceful-sounding Coleman Hawkins. Attempts were made to persuade Young to beef up his sound but that wasn’t the solution. Clearly he was in the wrong band, and it wasn’t long before he was back in the bosom of the Basie ensemble – just in time for their first recordings.

Before those January 1937 recordings, however, a small group recording session featuring men from the Basie band was set up in October 1936 by John Hammond, the writer and jazz enthusiast. And so it was that at the rather advanced age of 27, Lester Young was finally recorded. His first two sides – Shoe Shine Swing and Lady Be Good – polarised opinion between those who only had ears for the Hawkins sound and those who were seduced by Young’s light, floating tone.

The next few years were a golden era for Young. In the Basie band, he was not only accepted, despite his numerous personal eccentricities (his unusual style of dress, his use of made-up words, his shuffling gait …) – many of which had undoubtedly been cultivated as a collective defence mechanism because he was so chronically shy – but he was also treated as a star player. And no wonder: his solos were agile, elegant and dynamic and they explode out of the ensemble on such iconic recordings as Jumping at the Woodside and One O’Clock Jump.

Parallel to his stint as star soloist in the Basie band, he enjoyed playing in a series of informal small groups – the line-ups of which were drawn from the best big bands of the day. This was the period when he fell in love musically with the singer Billie Holiday. Their performances, both separately and together, on a series of peerless small group recordings are perfection.

Young had a way of wrapping his horn round Holiday’s vocals which underlined how close they were, and how intuitive they had very quickly become about each other’s musical thought processes.

Holiday seems to have understood Young and his insecurities and shyness, and she did her best to boost his confidence – especially when his sound was criticised. She was very protective of him, and, for an intense period in the late 1930s, they were as thick as thieves; in fact, at one point, Young roomed with Holiday and her mother. This was when he annointed her Lady Day, and she elected him Prez, short for “president”.

In December 1940, Young left the Basie band for reasons that have never been established. After a doomed attempt at being a bandleader, Young spent a happy 18 months working in his brother Lee’s band before eventually rejoining Basie in late 1943. During his period away from the Count, Young had recorded some classic sides (with pianist Nat King Cole and bass Red Callender) which seemed to hint at a change in direction; at a more ethereal, wistful, less optimistic sound than he had had before.

It wasn’t only classic recordings that Young made during this period; he also appeared in the gloriously atmospheric and Oscar-nominated short film Jammin’ the Blues, which was made by the photographer Gjon Mili and looks like a Herman Leonard photo come to life. Jammin’ the Blues shows us that Young looked as distinctive as he sounded, with his signature pork pie hat (a smoke-swirled close-up of which opens the film) and his unique habit of holding his sax at a 45 degree angle, with his head tilted to the side.

Although he seemed an unlikely candidate for the military, a terrified Young was drafted into the US Army in September 1944. What possible use they thought an alcoholic, syphilitic, marijuana-smoking, pill-popping jazz saxophonist would be to them is anyone’s guess, but he was nevertheless packed off to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for training.

In January 1945, having been found with marijuana and barbiturates in his possession, he was arrested, court martialled and sentenced to a year’s detention in military prison. When he emerged, eight months later, he went straight back into action, returning to the recording studio in October 1945 for a memorable session which included DB Blues (after the detention barracks) and Lester Blows Again.

In the late 1940s, Young joined Norman Granz’s high-profile Jazz At The Philharmonic line-up of musicians and established his own band, featuring much younger players. Although he married for the third time after the war, this was the first time in his nomadic existence he had ever tried to settle down to family life (his third wife bore him two children; he had lost contact with his daughter from his first marriage), but he found it difficult to adjust to it.

His drinking increased steadily through the 1950s, he had two nervous breakdowns, and a catalogue of health problems. During this time, he is said to have retreated more and more into his shell, gradually losing the will to live.

His second – and last – filmed appearance was in the  TV special The Sound of Jazz, recorded in December 1957. Young was one of the all-star band, which also included fellow tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, accompanying Billie Holiday on her own blues, Fine and Mellow.

Reunited with his musical soulmate for what would turn out to be the last time, a defeated-looking Young served up a solo that is as haunting and beautiful as it is simple and sad. No wonder Holiday beams first with delight and then with obvious approval and pride.

Just over a year later, Young, who had moved out of his family home and into cheap digs in central Manhattan, was taken seriously ill three weeks into a two-month engagement in Paris. Instead of checking into the nearest hospital, he boarded a flight back to New York and, on March 15 1959, died in his bed in the Alvin Hotel.

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The Happier Holiday

Dope addict, punchbag for her partners, target of racial prejudice – Billie Holiday, who died 50 years ago at the age of 44, has long been universally known not just as jazz’s greatest singer but also one of its saddest casualties. The phenomenally gifted vocalist, whom Frank Sinatra credited as his “greatest single influence”, is associated in many people’s minds with tragedy, oppression, abuse and the blues. But the truth is that the iconic Lady Day was not – for much of her existence – a downtrodden, pathetic creature at all.
Just because the key events in Holiday’s life – a possible rape when she was ten years old, an enforced separation from her mother, working as a prostitute in her teens, getting hooked on heroin, spending time in jail and suffering terrifying racial abuse – could have made her a victim, it doesn’t automatically follow that she was. Holiday’s final years were undoubtedly tragic but one shouldn’t assume that everything that went before was too.
Her death has come to overshadow her life; the ebullience and life-affirming qualities inherent in many of her recordings and in her personality, as described by friends and colleagues, until her last decade are often overlooked, swept aside by society’s need to slot everyone into a category.
But Billie Holiday was far too complex a character to be pigeon-holed simply as one of life’s victims. For one thing, she was not the type of person to allow herself to be pushed around – at least by anyone other than her lovers. And if anyone tried, the chances are they would get a thick lip. On numerous occasions, especially in her flaming youth, Holiday squared up to bigots – walking away was not an option.
There are various tales of how Holiday reacted to instances of racial prejudice – and they all involve her taking decisive, often reckless, action. On the road with Artie Shaw’s all-white band in 1938, she knew that things would be tough below the so-called Mason-Dixon Line: rednecks in the South would tolerate black people as entertainment, but this being the land of lynchings and the Klan, they wouldn’t acknowledge them as human beings.
During one show, Holiday was going down a storm but when a voice from the audience yelled: “Have the nigger wench sing another song!”, her simmering rage exploded and, in front of a packed auditorium, she clearly mouthed an obscenity which, as Shaw later recalled, caused “all hell to break loose”.
Other stories involve barroom brawls and Lady Day – for all her fisticuffs and foul language, she was the most elegant of singers – inviting ignoramuses who slurred her to step outside for a fight. Her pianist Bobby Tucker later said: “She beat the crap out of a guy at the bar who called her ‘nigger bitch’.”
Despite having no fear about standing up to the thugs and bullies she came across when she was out in public, Holiday allowed herself to be beaten up by a string of violent male partners – and there’s never been much evidence of her defending herself against them in the way that she did with strangers. Dan Morgenstern, the leading jazz expert who knew Holiday in the 1950s, is one of a number of her acquaintances who believes that: “She had a strong masochistic streak. She wanted guys who would hurt her both physically and emotionally.”
The two sides of Holiday’s personality are clear from one of the songs that became inexorably linked with her: My Man. It’s very much a song of two halves – the first, in a minor key, is all about the singer’s troubles with her lover (“Two or three girls has he/That he likes as well as me/But I love him”); the second is in a major key, slightly faster and much more hopeful (“All my life is just despair/ But I don’t care/When he takes me in his arms/ The world is bright, alright”).
Holiday recorded it three times – once in each decade of her recording career – and by the second recording, in 1949, she had added the lines “He beats me too/What can I do?”. That this song, though written by someone else, summed up her own point of view is clear from the fact that she ended her autobiography with a quote from it: “Tired? You bet/ But all of that I’ll soon forget with my man .. “
Of course, Holiday’s wilfully self-destructive habit of choosing brutes as her romantic partners was mirrored by her self-destructive drug addiction which has become the main theme of the Billie Holiday story over the years. Aside from the physical toll that heroin took on her, it also sapped her battling spirit and her lust for life. It turned her, when she was in thrall to the drug, into a different person and it cost her many friends.
Holiday’s tragic image was partly her own creation. In 1955, desperate for money to finance her habit, and aware of the fact that there was a demand for confessional memoirs, she dictated her autobiography to journalist William Dufty. It’s a compelling read, with Holiday’s characteristically “salty” language suggesting its authenticity but the reality was that it was full of exaggerations and deliberate distortions on her part. She hoped that the sensational aspects – which, before the publishers got cold feet, were to include details of her sexual adventures with everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Orson Welles – would attract Hollywood’s attention.
Indeed, it’s from the autobiography that much of the Holiday myth originates, as she allowed herself to come across as a victim. Even the title, Lady Sings the Blues, which was imposed by the publisher, is inaccurate: Holiday was not a blues singer; she rarely sang the blues.
Holiday’s tragic image was further consolidated in the public consciousness by the 1972 biopic, also entitled Lady Sings the Blues, which featured a harrowing performance by Diana Ross but had even less to do with the facts of Holiday’s life than her memoirs. Several key figures in her career, including Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, refused to allow their names to be used.
Perhaps Goodman and Shaw, who both met Holiday in her earliest years on the jazz scene, simply didn’t recognise in the Lady Sings the Blues character the insouciant, fun-loving girl they had known. Her friends from the 1930s and 1940s remember a bawdy young woman with a lust for life, and an appetite for sensation. Even in her final decade, the 1950s, there were still glimpses of her wild ways. Singer Annie Ross, who was one of the friends who stuck by her till the very end, recalls an afternoon in Paris where they drank their way down the Champs-Elysees, cafe by cafe, supposedly on a shopping expedition. After visiting a fancy boutique where they viewed tray after tray of jewellery, Lady Day tipped out her pockets to reveal to her young friend a stash of necklaces and other baubles.
But for proof positive that the happy-go-lucky, “don’t careish”, Billie Holiday existed before – and then alongside – the rather more troubled Lady Day, just listen to her legacy of recordings. Yes, you’ll feel pity for the later Holiday with the voice that has paid the price for her lifestyle, but you’ll also feel uplifted by the sheer joie-de-vivre she exuded throughout the 1930s and then on occasion until she died, on July 17 1959.

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