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Billie Holiday: 'Love Songs'


MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: There are distinctive sounds in jazz, and then there's Billie Holiday. There she is on a CD called Love Songs and A.B. Spellman says it should be a part of the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library.

A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: I do think so, Murray, because this is Billie Holiday when she was younger, when she had a better voice. She never had a great voice. She never had much of a range. And, she had a very nasal quality to her singing. All of this turned into style for her. She never tried to show great technical chops. She went to the heart of the song. And no singer ever could pull more meaning out of a song than Billie Holiday.


SPELLMAN: At this time she is singing, I think, her best.

HORWITZ: And this is in the late '30s?

SPELLMAN: The late '30s, that's right. She is singing with all of the very best musicians of the swing period, practically. And she gets this camaraderie going with them, where she's just another instrument up there on the stage blowing. And she always listenened to instrumentalists and not to other singers. And you can hear that in her sound compared to Lester Young, who I think phrased a great deal like her in many respects.


HORWITZ: It might have been the great jazz historian Phil Schaap who said that among the three of them, the trumpeter Buck Clayton, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, and the vocalist Billie Holiday created in these recordings a kind of chamber music that had just not ever existed before on the face of the earth.

SPELLMAN: I think this is true because they were intimate with each other's sound. They worked for— not for a long time, but for a good year or so — with the Count Basie Orchestra, but they were on the road all the time, working and singing and rehearsing every night, and they recorded a good deal together and they hung out together. And so they were all good friends, particularly Billie and Lester Young.


SPELLMAN: She is one of the very first great microphone singers. The distance between Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith is the distance of the megaphone to the microphone.

HORWITZ: Right. Bessie Smith, a great blues shouter and Billie Holiday, a very intimate singer, who sings right into the microphone.

SPELLMAN: That's right. Bessie Smith could stand before a sixteen-piece orchestra in a large hall with no microphone at all and have no problem being heard and getting her thing across. Billie Holiday could never have worked without the microphone because she's too subtle. You needed some technology to be able to allow her to do all those very slight bends of the notes which get by you if you're not paying attention.


MURRAY HORWITZ: So for a very good listen on what made Billie Holiday Billie Holiday, we're suggesting for your NPR Basic Jazz Record Library, Love Songs, Billie Holiday. It's on the Columbia/Legacy label. For NPR Jazz, I'm Murray Horwitz.

SPELLMAN: And I'm A.B. Spellman.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A. B. Spellman
Murray Horwitz
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