Chronicles of a Fan Girl: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald
Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald
December marks the last month of the year. It is also the month of my beloved and amazing grandmother’s birthday, which just so happens to be the very day she left this world.
While this could break your heart year after year, I find this to be the time I drop the needle on my record player and let the sounds of the sirens envelope me in harmony and gratitude. My Grammy, as I called her, was a graceful, brilliant, hazel-eyed firecracker. She came up in the Jazz Age listening to swing. She was beautiful and independent and so self-assured. My favorite example of this was when my young and handsome grandfather first met her he commented, “You’re cute.” To which she matter-of-factly replied, “I know.” While I would have loved to inherit that self-confidence and dazzling eye color, I did not. Instead, I inherited a loving fire that burns inside of me, a record collection, and an endless affection for jazz and songstresses like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
My first memory of Billie Holiday was as a young girl and a conversation about Civil Rights with my Grammy. My Grammy dropped the needle of her record player on “Strange Fruit.” As the haunting melody poured from the speakers, I watched my Grammy’s eyes close and her head began to nod back and forth as her hazel eyes glistened with tears. Holiday’s sad words floated through the air and I felt them flutter upon me like sad snowflakes. It was powerful and though I was young, I knew this was not just a song. This was not just a singer. I had no idea, until years later, that she had not actually written that song, but this was a fantastic introduction to the power that Holiday possessed. Some argue she was the most important female vocalist to grace jazz. Her voice welcomes the bittersweet ache of the brokenhearted and says, “You think you’ve got it rough. Oh, baby. Just you listen up.”
Holiday always stuck me as a cat-like force. She sauntered ahead and behind the beat of every song as she pleased. She paid no mind how it should be sung. She was like no one else. Her range was not extensive, but I imagined she never lost a wink of sleep wondering how she could be more like any of her peers. She did as she pleased. She was tough. Her fame was hard won after clawing her way out of a life of child prostitution and unimaginable odds. With that picturesque flower in her hair, she mesmerized her audiences, but off stage she lived as hard as any jazz man. She cursed, drank, fought and loved. My favorite story about “Lady Day” is when two drunken sailors put out their cigarettes on her fur coat she told them to meet her outside. Upon doing so, she beat them both with her bare fists. As a listener, you do not have to struggle to hear the pain and strife in her voice. She had been misused, mistreated and abused, and this anger and sorrow filled each song. It is not just her pain you can hear, it is the pain of her contemporaries; it is your pain too. Any tune she touched became hers, and every soul who has ever been moved by her voice becomes hers as well. She is a velvety abyss that consumes your aching heart on late nights, in dark rooms. Even when I have company, I feel as though I am alone when Holiday sings. There is a great deal of solitude in every song.
Ella Fitzgerald was another favorite singer of my Grammy. Fitzgerald just made her happy. Her voice was as fresh and crisp as a freshly sliced lemon on a sunny day. She could lift you like a feather on the breeze. Her voice was one of most beautiful I had ever heard. It was hard to believe that such a talent had ever been called ugly by the famous Chick Webb. Despite any negativity about her, she sang for Webb and he and his wife became her legal guardians. She rose to fame and gained respect as she continued to lead Webb’s band two years after his death. Her spirit seemed impenetrable and I admired her effervescent grace. When you listen to “When I Get Low I Get High,” her energy comes through in every note. If you don’t want to move a little when you hear this tune, I am afraid you aren’t listening. She outlived and out sang many of her peers. Fitzgerald dazzles the winter season in her perfect duets with the likes of many jazz men. My favorite, aside from “Baby It’s Cold Outside,“ would have to be “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which she performed with Louis Armstrong.
In 2009, my small apartment was charred in a gas-leak fueled explosion I narrowly escaped. One of the few possessions I was able to salvage was much of my record collection, which miraculously survived. The night after the fire, I did not yet know if the record collection I loved so dearly was salvageable. Wracked with guilt I dreamed of my Grammy that night. My face wet with tears, I told her I was so sorry about her records. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I know what happened, I was there. It isn’t important. What I left you, you carry with you always.” Not only was this a comfort to me, it was true.
As this year turned over to a new one, I find this is not a time to think of her absence, but to feel her presence. She opened my eyes to the world of music. From jazz I was lead to punk rock and she instilled in me an undying hunger for music that meant something, music that mattered. My values and morals were planted deep inside my soul by music. Those seeds took root and have guided me through all my days leading me to more joy than you could imagine. As I type these words, Billie Holiday’s forlorn voice echoes through my tiny studio apartment and I am sending my love to all those souls in that jazz club in the sky.