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Billie Holiday’s Influence, Then and Now

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jazz fans distracted by the past week’s hyperactive political campaigning may have missed the announcement of a vastly different event.

Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

No, there aren’t any typos in that sentence. It actually happened. Holiday, with Nat King Cole, was inducted Monday as an “Early Influence.” And that association, to make a further political reference, is reminiscent of the politicians who attempt to assure their own importance by wrapping themselves in the mantles of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, etc.

It’s easy enough to suggest that Holiday had an impact upon Diana Ross (who did the induction honors at the New York City ceremony)--at least after Ross portrayed Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues,” at best a flawed view of the legendary singer. But I suspect that Holiday’s “influence” upon rock-era artists had a lot more to do with attitude than music--with some perception of her as an outsider rather than a fascination with who she was and what she was attempting to do as a jazz artist.

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And it is that fundamental misconception that makes her inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seem so odd. With Holiday, the fundamental encounter that took place was between her and her music. Fans were fortunate to have the opportunity to experience the passion of that encounter. With rock ‘n’ roll, the fundamental encounter is between the performer and the audience. In that relationship, the music serves primarily as the vehicle for the connection.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s just another way of making music. But it wasn’t Holiday’s way.

A somewhat more intriguing picture of Holiday emerges in a new book, “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” by David Margolick ($16.95, Running Press), scheduled for publication April 7, which would have been her 85th birthday. The book is a brief chronicle of Holiday’s association with the song “Strange Fruit,” written--although few people, even today, are aware of the fact--by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish schoolteacher from New York City who wrote under the pen name of Lewis Allen.

Although the song was performed earlier (it was originally written for Meeropol’s wife), it has been inextricably linked with Holiday since she first sang it in 1939 at the Cafe Society in Greenwich Village. Margolick (a four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee) follows its history through Holiday’s career and beyond via reviews, commentary and Holiday’s own reminiscences.

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A harrowing description of a lynching in the South, “Strange Fruit” offered imagery--"Black body swinging in the Southern breeze . . ."--that was disturbingly explicit, especially at a time when segregation still existed and protest music was virtually unknown.

Given the continuing instances of violence against minorities, the song is as timely today as it was 60 years ago. And Margolick accurately tracks the song’s continued topicality, from Holiday’s career to the present. (“Strange Fruit” has also been recorded by, among many others, Tori Amos, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae, Lou Rawls, Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson and Sting.)

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On Record: Columbia has finally gotten around to completing its celebration of the Duke Ellington centennial year with the release of “The Duke: The Essential Recordings (1927-1961).” The three-CD box encompasses performances ranging from “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” in 1930 to “A Midnight in Paris” (a Billy Strayhorn work from 1962).

The first CD (which covers the period between 1927 and 1940) is particularly valuable, since it covers a period in which the Ellington sound and style were in their birthing period. The 25 tracks include the original versions of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Caravan,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and others.

The second CD, covering the years between 1947 and 1952, chronicles a considerably less productive period, a time when the Ellington orchestra was going through personnel changes and the new sounds of bebop were creating stylistic factionalism in many areas of jazz. The disc contains a number of remakes of classic Ellingtonia (“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” with an Al Hibbler vocal; “Creole Love Call,” with Kay Davis doing the last Ellington vocal rendering of the tune; and “Take the ‘A’ Train”), and a great deal of far lesser-known material.

The third CD also includes remakes (“Solitude,” “Mood Indigo” and “Perdido” among them) with such attractive new material as Mahalia Jackson’s rendering of “Come Sunday,” a track from the “Anatomy of a Murder” score and excerpts from three suites (“Such Sweet Thunder,” “Deep South Suite” and “Nutcracker Suite”).

Obviously not as inclusive as the huge RCA boxed set released last year, it nonetheless encompasses some vital elements in the Ellington oeuvre.

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Riffs: Veteran jazz singer Anita O’Day is back in action at Atlas Bar and Grill on Monday nights. . . . The Jazz Alumni are sponsoring a series of Wednesday night jazz programs on the Hermosa Beach Pier Plaza, from 5 to 9 p.m. The trombone group Seven or Six Trombones appears Wednesday, followed by Casey Jones and the Engineers on March 22, the Herman Riley Quartet on March 29, the Gil Bernal Quartet on April 5 and Salsa Night on April 12. Admission is free. . . . Jazz at Lincoln Center has announced the 15 finalist bands in its fifth annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition. Of the finalists, four are from the West Coast, with three from Seattle and one from the nearby town of Shoreline, Wash. Very interesting . . . and very strange.

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Have You Ever Wondered . . . : If an audience applauds for every single jazz solo at a performance, then what’s the value of the applause? . . . Why bandleaders almost unfailingly wait until the loudest audience response before they provide the names of their sidemen, thereby virtually guaranteeing that the sidemen will remain anonymous? Is that because they don’t want anyone to get a free ride to fame in their bands? . . . Why the last number of each jazz set inevitably seems to feature the Dreaded Drum Solo? . . . Who came up with the idea that, if a young player was a good improviser, it automatically followed that he was a good composer? Actually, it was probably the musicians themselves when they realized that more original tunes meant more potential royalty payments. But the unfortunate result has been that we now are flooded with recordings by young jazz artists, overflowing with original tunes, most of them instantly forgettable.


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