Monday, September 14, 2015

Old & New: Top 5 Billie Holiday Tributes

Billie Holiday & dog "Mister" (William Gottlieb Collection)

In honor of Billie Holiday's centennial year, and the tremendous influence the legendary singer has had on artists of every generation, we've pulled together five tributes (old and new) to Lady Day.

Although "Strange Fruit" isn't a Holiday original (penned by Abel Meeropol as a poem in 1937), Lady Day made it famous. (Legend tells that Holiday would close out sets with the song. Waiters would stop all service, the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday, and there would be no encore.) Nina Simone, who acknowledges Holiday as one of her biggest inspirations, gives one of the most stirring renditions of "Strange Fruit" you'll hear.

In a recent interview with VH1, rising vocalist José James called Billie Holiday his "musical mother." James captures a beautiful mood on Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday (2015), his third release on Blue Note Records. Even better, James brings this project to San Francisco on Saturday, September 20th.

Pianist Mal Waldron accompanied Billie Holiday regularly from April 1957 until her death in July, 1959. Although Waldron recorded Left Alone in 1959, he was reluctant to release it immediately, given a large outpouring of "bandwagon" tributes recorded and released immediately after Holiday's passing. In addition to a beautiful collaboration with Jackie McLean on "Left Alone," the album features an enlightening "Mal Waldron Interview: The Way He Remembers Billy Holiday."

Cassandra Wilson lends her rich, dusky sound and interpretive gift to a selection of Billie Holiday classics on Coming Forth By Day (2015) to celebrate the singer's centennial. Wilson's final song, "Last Song for Lester Young" is intended to fill a void left by the events surrounding the funeral of Holiday's long time companion, Lester Young. After hearing of Lester’s passing while touring in Europe, Billie immediately flew home to the States to attend his funeral. She wanted to sing a song for him as a final farewell. Unfortunately, Lester’s family, for whatever reason, denied Billie the opportunity to sing. Like José James, Wilson brings her centennial tribute to San Francisco in May, 2016.

Abbey Lincoln reflects on Lady Day in a rare interview conducted around the time she released Abbey Sings Billie, Vol. 1 & 2 (1987). An avid civil rights advocate throughout the 1960s, Lincoln cites Holiday as one of her biggest influencers. Referencing "Strange Fruit," Lincoln praises Holiday for having "the courage to defend herself. When they were lynching men and women in the south, she sang about it. None of the other women or men sang about it: that's why Billie is different from the rest of them."

SFJAZZ celebrates the centennial of Billie Holiday with José James and Cassandra Wilson in the 2015-16 Season.

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