“Lady Day,” more commonly known as Billie Holiday, is considered one of the best jazz vocalists ever, even though it is said that on her best vocal day she could hit a range of only 10 notes.
“I hate straight singing,” she said, according to Nnenna Freelon, five-time Grammy-nominated singer. “I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.”
Holiday stuck to her beliefs, never compromising the way she sang her music. She never learned to read music, and most of her recording sessions were improvisations.
In the last installment of USF’s “Looking at Jazz” series, Freelon gave a lecture on Holiday and a few other topics concerning jazz.
Freelon imagined what Billie Holiday’s career would’ve been like if she was in her prime today. She also said music is “something you really can’t talk about.” With a witty sense of humor and a deep passion for Billie Holiday, who she dubbed the “grandmother of jazz singers,” Freelon elaborated on her interest in the legendary songstress.
She discussed the differences between herself and Holiday. While Freelon grew up in the care of a loving family, Holiday grew up in the streets of Baltimore where her parents were absent most of the time. While Holiday had to fight against racism and sexism, Freelon was fortunate enough not to be judged by her ethnicity.
Still, the connection she feels with Holiday is profound. Freelon found an artistic soul mate in her because of the powerful emotion and artistry of Holiday’s music.
“Billie invented herself,” Freelon said. She took all of her life experiences and sang with them. She wasn’t afraid to talk about race when she sang “Strange Fruit” and she sang it whether people liked it or not, she said.
“Strange Fruit” is full of controversial lyrics such as: “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / strange fruit
hanging from the poplar trees.” At the time, that song could have meant the end of her career, but Holiday stood on stage and boldly sang. Freelon said that this is what kept her up all night thinking about Holiday.
Though it was difficult to get grants, Freelon finally realized her dream. Her Blue Print of a Lady tour consisted of a beautifully crafted back drop, eight dancers, five vocalists and a full band all on stage together, working in sync to portray what Freelon imagined Holiday would be like today.
The lecture closed with Freelon’s performance of “Them, There Eyes.” Claiming she “wasn’t trying to imitate Billie or even closely resemble her,” Freelon said this was an updated version of the song.
Attendees heard a musician draw comparisons between her own music and that of her idol. Freelon spoke with the same passion that she said Holiday exhibited in her singing, honoring “Lady Day’s” music with her own insight into the artist’s mind.