Billie Holiday

1939-1940

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This volume of the Classics Chronological series places Billie Holiday's music in historical context to an unusual degree, as her recordings for the Columbia and Commodore labels have until now been reissued separately because of copyright and catalog ownership. The songs parceled together here were recorded at a crossroads in Holiday's career. The setting for the first -- in what would constitute great changes in her life and music -- was Barney Josephson's Café Society Downtown. Located at 2 Sheridan Square, this was Manhattan's first fully integrated nightclub. Its clientele included a number of politically progressive intellectuals and social activists. When she first appeared at the club on December 30, 1938, Billie Holiday was known as a spunky vocalist who presented lively renditions of pop and jazz standards in what was considered an unusual yet accessible style. It was in the year 1939 that Lady Day gradually began to create a subtler if at times more provocative persona. Part of this equation was profoundly political, and the singer's activism is most stunningly present in "Strange Fruit," a powerfully disturbing setting of a poem by Lewis Allen describing in careful detail the appearance of a lynching victim. The specter of a black body hanging from a poplar tree was and still is a powerful image that can and should haunt the listener long after the song has ended. The fact that Holiday chose to incorporate this piece into her live performances puts her in a much different category from her preexisting cabaret image of a cheerful young jazz vocalist. It is a fact that after she began presenting "Strange Fruit" to the public -- and singing at benefits for politically progressive causes -- Billie Holiday became an object of FBI surveillance. John Hammond, generally regarded as the man who discovered Holiday and helped develop her career, is known to have disliked "Strange Fruit" and was behind Columbia's refusal to record this controversial song. Fortunately for posterity, Billie, backed by an ensemble drawn from the house band at Café Society, was able to wax four of her all-time best records -- including "Strange Fruit" -- on April 20, 1939, for Milt Gabler's innovative Commodore label. On the other hand, even when heard without the benefit of these historical insights, the music included in this part of the chronology is simply some of the best jazz of its day, rendered by some of the greatest players on the scene. An overview of the trumpeters, for example, includes Frankie Newton, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Shavers, Buck Clayton, Roy Eldridge, and Harry "Sweets" Edison. Billie's first collaborations with a tenor sax player were with Kenneth Hollon during the early '30s. Hollon was on hand at Café Society and can be heard on the first three sessions presented here. Tab Smith sounds particularly fine on soprano sax during "Long Gone Blues." The band backing Billie on December 13, 1939, was essentially Count Basie's Orchestra with Joe Sullivan sitting in at the piano. And the most precious element of all is the presence of Lester Young. The combined personalities of Pres and Lady Day transformed every song into a collective ritual filled with magic and poetic grace.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:35
2 3:09
3 3:09
4 3:21
5 3:13
6 2:50
7 3:04
8 3:17
9 2:53
10 2:59
11 3:01
12 3:08
13 3:01
14 2:48
15 2:41
16 3:02
17 2:43
18 2:53
19 3:13
20 3:11
21 2:57
22 3:04
blue highlight denotes track pick