Yesterday I Had the Blues: Jose James on Billie Holiday at 100

Yesterday I Had the Blues: Jose James on Billie Holiday at 100

Billie Holiday is as incomparable as they come.

Her all-too brief career as a singer, songwriter and bandleader is has revolutionized jazz and popular music in her day, the effects of which still resonate in most corners today.

Born April 7, 1915, Holiday was born into a broken home and dropped out of school at the age of 11. It is said she first heard the recordings of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, while running errands in a brothel, a line of work she was forced to join by the age of 14. 

Having relocated to New York with her mother, Holiday began singing in Harlem jazz clubs, where she gradually earned a reputation for her unique vocal approach.

At the age of 17 she caught the eye of John Hammond, the same legendary producer who discovered Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, and countless others.

Her career would climb to increasingly new heights from there, leading her to work with countless jazz greats at the height of the jazz era, notably her frequent collaborator, saxophonist Lester Young, who gave her the name Lady Day. Running side-by-side to that is her well-known, and often dramatized, personal life, which was marked by repeated misfortune until her tragic death at the age of 44.

More important than her troubled story is the stamina of her artistic contributions.

Hammond would later say, “Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.”

Of her many remarkable traits as an artist, her voice was indeed her most distinctive.

In his new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, John Szwed writes, “Billie Holiday’s voice is odd, indelibly odd, and so easy to recognize, but so difficult to describe. In her early years, some called it sad, olive-toned, whisky-hued, lazy, feline, smoky, unsentimental, weird.”

But beyond her singing, or even her other notable talents, Holiday’s most pungent legacy is a far less tangible thing.

Szwed later quotes composer and historian Gunther Schuller, who said “We can, of course, describe and analyze the surface mechanics of her art: her style, her technique, her personal vocal attributes, and I suppose a poet could express the essence of her art or at least give us, by poetic analogy, his particular insight into it. But, as with all truly profound art, that which operates above, below, and all around its outer manifestations is what most touches us, and also remains ultimately mysterious.”

To commemorate what would have been Holiday’s 100th birthday next week, Jose James, a decorated young jazz vocalist in his own time, has released Yesterday I Had the Blues, a tribute to the singer he has described as his “musical mother.”

The smooth set of songs written or popularized by Holiday, was produced by music legend (and Blue Note Records president) Don Was and features a top-tier backing trio composed of pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Eric Harland.

Using language that has been similarly used to describe his own rich and expressive baritone, James writes of his earliest memory hearing Holiday’s music: “Billie’s voice floated through our house – grand, warm, intimate, and wholly unique.”

He continues, “I rediscovered Billie during a difficult period of my teenage years. As much as I loved Nirvana, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, her music spoke to me on a much deeper level. Her work was mastery – of pain, of trauma, of faith in music and the power of transformation. I had found my teacher. Billie Holiday made me want to be a jazz singer and set me on the path that I’m walking today.”

We talked more with James about the project, working with Don Was, and the untouchable legacy of Billie Holiday.

What is Billie Holiday’s legacy? What makes her one of the greatest jazz artists of all time?

Billie Holiday is without question one of the greatest vocalists of all time. She has the rare quality of bringing you into a lyric, into an emotion. When you listen to Billie Holiday, regardless of your culture or background, you feel like you know her somehow. Besides that, she’s a musical genius who internalized the harmonic and melodic inventions of the great tenor t​itans of her time ​(​Lester Young, Ben Webster, etc.)​ and​ turned it into the best jazz phrasing the world ha​s​ ever known.

What does her music mean to you on a personal level?

On a personal level, listening to Billie Holiday taught me everything I know about singing jazz. And if that’s not the best compliment I can give, I don’t know what is.

Any songs in particular?

To me, the essence of Billie Holiday comes down to two songs: “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless The Child.” “Strange Fruit” ​represents her as a fearless activist for change. “God Bless The Child” represents her independence, willpower and artistic vision. These two songs together get to the core of Billie Holiday for me.

What did you hope to accomplish with this project?

My hope in doing this project is to shed light on Billie Holiday as an incredible songwriter, bandleader and fearless feminist and radical. She has been cast as a tragic figure too often. I think to this day she’s still underrated as a jazz innovator. It says a lot to me that Frank Sinatra cited her as one of his primary influences.

Any special moments during the process?

​The entire process has been one long special moment. We recorded the album in four hours, with the exception of “Strange Fruit,” which Don and I recorded alone the next day. There was a genuine magic in the room and everyone felt it. This was truly one of those sessions that happens once in a lifetime.

What is it like working with Don Was?

​Don Was is a legend, plain and simple. When he walks into the room everyone comes with their A game. As an artist, I felt fully supported by everything Don brought to the table. He puts everyone in the room at ease as a musician, producer, and president of Blue Note Records.

You’ve already been touring behind this album. What is it like performing such loaded material that is so associated with her?

Honestly, it’s very difficult singing a song like “Strange Fruit”​ ​in​ light of recent police brutality ​against black people across the country. It’s especially​ daunting knowing that, in essence, very little has changed since Billie Holiday ​originally recorded the song. ​

On the lighter side, it’s fantastic to sing some of the more playful and romantic songs she was known for, such as “Lover Man” or “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” and see how it connects with a contemporary audience. These songs are called standards for a reason.

If you could meet Billie Holiday today, what would you say to her?

Where are you singing next?

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