Billie Holiday by John Szwed, review by Chris Heim

One hundred years after her birth (April 7, 1915), over a half century after her death (July 17, 1959) and scores of books in multiple languages later, does the world really need another book about Billie Holiday? In this case, the answer is yes.

John Szwed, a musician and former professor of music and director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia, isn't offering a standard biography. But as he did in his impressive book about another larger than life jazz figure, Sun Ra (Space Is the Place: the Lives and Times of Sun Ra), Szwed adopts the far too unusual stance of taking his subject seriously - in the case of Ra, as a philosopher, and in the case of Holiday, as an artist.

"What I have tried to do," Szwed writes in the introduction, "is write a different kind of book, one that attempts to widen our sense of who Billie Holiday was, one that sets her life in a particular framework of the world in which she lived and in that specific musical time. But it also seeks to stay close to her music, to her performance style, to the self she created and put on record and on stage."

He first grapples with the knotty issue of Holiday's life story, still open to much question and debate even after Linda Kuehl's treasure trove of over 150 interviews with people who knew Holiday became available and informed a number of more recent biographies (see below). Szwed first tackles Holiday's own autobiography, a grand, but limited and often distorted account written with William Dufty, whose own impressive credentials and fascinating story are also explored here.

After examining what was in Lady Sings the Blues, Szwed then offers some of what and who (Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, to name a few) weren't there - stories the publisher wanted removed for fear of lawsuits and some of Holiday's own motivations for omitting or distorting parts of her story.

But Szwed doesn't see Holiday's music as merely a reflection of her life, a kind of sung autobiography, and that of a victim at that. Instead he devotes over half the book to her artistry - how she presented herself, how she sang, and what she chose to sing - weaving into that her life story (and some background about the musical, cultural and racial world into which she was born), but clearly showing that her work was indeed performance, and one consistently sustained, often at the highest of levels, despite what Szwed at one point calls "such chaotic personal circumstances."

Holiday was not, Szwed argues, some empty, unthinking pipeline with life experience poured in at one end and songs, untouched by conscious artistry, coming out the other. She clearly and artfully fashioned her music and, in the process, not only influenced nearly all jazz singing that followed, but almost singlehandedly invented it.

Readers who want to know more about Holiday's life will find better books than this, and one wishes Szwed had actually added a bit more to this rather short (just under 200 pages) offering and wrapped it up in a bit more conclusive way. But he will make you go back and hear Holiday differently, revealing the deeper work she created from what were often little, light pop tunes, and showing her life and character as something much greater than the tabloid fodder so often offered. And perhaps indeed it needed a century to finally be able to achieve that.


Holiday's own Lady Sings the Blues is a must read, despite its drawbacks. Dufty captured her voice and she tells a compelling story, far removed from the fluff of most celebrity biographies, especially in the Fifties. Lady may be as much a performance as Holiday's concerts, but in its own unrepentant way, it is a magnificent one. Among the Holiday biographies, a number of more recent ones stand out - in part because they were able to draw on the Kuehl and other new material to offer a broader picture than before. Among them are Robert O Meally's Lady Day: the Many Faces of Billie Holiday, Stuart Nicholson's Billie Holiday (which includes Phil Schaap's extensive discography) and Donald Clarke's Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon. Julia Blackburn's With Billie offers a selection of those Kuehl interviews, sometimes as unreliable as Holiday, but offering their own direct and often fascinating experience of her. Leslie Gourse edited a collection of essays exploring Holiday's life, music and legacy in The Billie Holiday Companion. Finally David Margolick's short but incisive Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights tells the fascinating personal, social, and political story behind one of Holiday's most famous and moving songs.

Chris Heim is host of KMUW FM 89.1's Global Village, Crossroads, and Night Train- the nightly (M-Th 10p) jazz show which features music of Billie Holiday throughout April to celebrate her centennial birthday.

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth Cover Image
ISBN: 9780670014729
Availability: This book may require a special order. Please call us for price & availability: (316) 682-1181.
Published: Viking - March 31st, 2015