Today, April 7, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday’s birth. The recording industry is all over this landmark event, first with Legacy Records’ release today of Billie Holiday: The Centennial Collection, which gathers 20 essential recordings from Holiday’s career. In addition, jazz singers Cassandra Wilson and Jose James have both released tribute albums timed to the anniversary, Coming Forth by Day from Wilson and Yesterday I Had the Blues from James. Listen to the records, by all means, but also check out the wealth of written material about Holiday, her troubled life and brilliant career. Here’s a short list to get you started.
Becoming Billie Holiday. By Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 2008. Boyds Mills.
Published as a children’s book, this collection of poems based on Holiday’s life written from Holiday’s point of view, won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor award. That said, the bluesy lyrics are satisfying for adult readers as well, and Floyd Cooper’s evocative illustrations support the poems effectively.
Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. By John Szwed. 2015. Viking.
Jazz critic Szwed is not out to write a biography of Holiday; rather, he breaks down some of the myths about her life—several perpetuated in the singer’s own autobiography (see below)—and, most important, he offers the most complete and perhaps most perceptive analysis of her singing that you’ll find anywhere.
It’s a big book for just one poem, but anyone reading about Billie Holiday needs to begin with O’Hara’s classic short poem, “The Day Lady Died.” OK, you could just google the poem and not bother with the collection, but why not take the opportunity to immerse yourself in O’Hara’s wonderfully original and stunningly lyrical work?
This as-told-to autobiography published in 1946 should not be the first source for reliable information on Holiday’s life (she claimed never to have read the book, much less written it), though it remains a central if inaccurate document in the Holiday bibliography and probably deserves a look, if only as a comparison point to the other books on this list.
Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester “Pres” Young. By Douglas Henry Daniels. 2002. Beacon.
Holiday’s relationship with tenor saxophonist Lester Young was one of the most significant in both jazz greats’ lives, both personally and musically, and this superb biography of Young covers it thoroughly and insightfully. It was Young, of course, who first called Holiday “Lady Day,” and it was Holiday who first dubbed Young “Pres,” famously noting that jazz has a duke (Ellington) and a count (Basie), so why not a president?
Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday. By Donald Clark. 1994. Viking.
This remains the definitive biography of Billie Holiday, and it should be the first place any reader goes to learn more about the singer. As Booklist’s Donna Seaman described the book in her review, “Clarke’s portrait embraces every facet of Holiday’s paradoxical nature, from her fierceness to her vulnerability, her childlikeness to her innate elegance and amazing strength.”
With Billie. By Julia Blackburn. 2005. Pantheon.
This fascinating work functions as a kind of oral history of Billie Holiday, bringing together reflections from more than 150 people who knew the singer. From a black narcotics agent testifying to the harassment Holiday endured, to glowing testimonials of her genius from fellow musicians, the book reads like a many-versed jazz solo in which a performer explores a familiar tune from many, often conflicting perspectives.