A recording from the 1950s captures Billie Holiday in conversation with some fellow musicians at a rehearsal. ‘I’m telling you,’ she says, ‘me and my old voice, it just go up a little bit and come down a little bit. It’s not legit.’ And she was right. With a vocal range barely stretching beyond an octave, she really could only go up and down ‘a little bit’, and she wouldn’t have lasted a day at any of the conservatories that trained aspiring singers in the ‘legit’ techniques of classical or operatic performance. Since Holiday was incapable of the vocal gymnastics displayed by the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, her place in the first rank of jazz singers surely rests on other qualities. It’s in drawing those out that John Szwed’s book is at its most valuable.
The familiar view has it that what imbued Holiday’s singing with such power and profundity, despite the obvious limitations of her voice, was a kind of personal authenticity. What Szwed calls the ‘myth’ of Billie Holiday – the pastiche of tragedy that built up around her over the course of her career and that has been recycled ever since her death in 1959, at the age of forty-four – makes the very real pain of her often tortured existence the key to understanding her art. She lived