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New CD Set Celebrates Billie Holiday


It was 90 years ago that the jazz singer Billie Holiday was born.

(Soundbite from "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Ooh, what a little moonlight can do. Ooh, what a little moonlight can do to you.

INSKEEP: A new collection of Billie Holiday's music celebrates a life cut short. The liner notes are written by Ashley Kahn, who you often hear on this program speaking about music. He sat down with Renee to talk about the life and music of Lady Day.


The new CD-DVD set is called "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection." And no one can argue with that. It contains every song Billie Holiday ever wrote, plus TV, radio and movie appearances. Here she is in a 1935 Duke Ellington film when she was barely 20 years old.

(Soundbite from "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) My man's gone. I feel forlorn. I've got those lost my man blues.

ASHLEY KAHN (Music Journalist): Billie Holiday's legend is the long-suffering, lonesome woman singing to herself and allowing us into that intimate moment. It's like catching someone looking at themselves in the mirror or something and saying, `Check out my life.' But, of course, the music just lives on and on as an influence, as a sort of model for the way of approaching a very intimate way of singing.

MONTAGNE: You know, one thing about her that would have suited a smaller audience was that Billie Holiday's voice and her way of being--she projected a girlishness, a vulnerability even in her 40s and long after she'd lived quite a life.

KAHN: Absolutely. I mean, there were other singers who whispered the vocals. Peggy Lee is an obvious example who came from the same era. But Billie Holiday's voice, the sighs that come out of her, the fact that she waits so long behind the beat to get the words out, implies this incredible inner thinking before she, you know, moans and utters the lyric.

MONTAGNE: I'd like to play a little of Billie Holiday singing here from a legendary TV appearance that's in this collection, made in 1957, a CBS television show called "The Sound of Jazz."

(Soundbite from "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) My man don't love me. He treats me, oh, so mean.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about this appearance.

KAHN: It's the reunion of Lester Young on saxophone and Billie Holiday, and they're doing a Billie Holiday original called "Fine and Mellow." And basically, it is the point-counterpoint of this incredible blues dialogue that Billie Holiday had established with Lester Young back when she was singing with Count Basie in the '30s. So here they are 20 years later. They've both gone through so much of the hard life that musicians go through on the road and in their careers. It's the last time they performed together, too, so it also has that sort of bittersweet quality to it.

(Soundbite from "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) He wears high-trimmed pan, stripes are really yellow. He wears high-trimmed pan, stripes are really yellow. But when he starts in to love me, he's so fine and mellow.

MONTAGNE: What listeners can't see in listening to this is the expression on Billie Holiday's face. And to me, she looks like she's in a trance really, I mean, like she's literally in the music.

KAHN: Well, I think she always was from the start. She was someone who found solace, who found an escape from the hardships of her life. I mean, you know, she grew up the daughter of a woman of the streets, and, you know, became a woman of the streets herself for a short period. And music was that sort of perfect place she could go to, this protected little world for at least three and a half minutes.

(Soundbite from "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Lady sings the blues. She's got them bad, she sings so sad.

MONTAGNE: This collection also contains a radio conversation, quite a rare find, Billie Holiday being interviewed by Mike Wallace--I mean, the Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes"--back in 1956.

KAHN: Exactly. She's doing a big, triumphant night at Carnegie Hall. Her big autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues" has just come out, so this is part of her press tour. And she's doing a late-night radio conversation, and he's asking some pretty standard questions. He's obviously a fan. He refers to her as Lady.

(Soundbite from "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection")

Mr. MIKE WALLACE: There seems to be a real companionship, Lady, among the greats in the jazz world. The jazz greats seem to love one another and work with one another.

Ms. HOLIDAY: You mean like when Dizzy and Louie and myself and Ella, we all get together?

Mr. WALLACE: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Mike Wallace asked her a question, and so poignant now when we know that Billie Holiday died before she reached the age of 45.

(Soundbite from "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection")

Mr. WALLACE: The question, Billie, that I was going to ask was why so many jazz greats seem to die so early? Now Bix Beiderbecke it happened to, Fats Waller wasn't too old, Charlie Parker, Frankie Teschmaker.

Ms. HOLIDAY: Well, Mike, the only way I can answer that question is we try to live 100 days in one day, and we try to please so many people and we try to--like myself, I want to bend this note and bend that note and sing this way and sing that way and get all the feeling in and eat all the good foods and try all--in one day, you can't do it. So I think that's why.

MONTAGNE: Billie Holiday's slurred, whispery voice betrays that effort to live 100 days in just one. She died in 1959. Ashley Kahn wrote the liner notes for the new CD-DVD set "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection." Here's a song, "Detour Ahead," that even aficionados might not be familiar with. But from the first note, there's no mistaking that voice.

(Soundbite from "Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Smooth road, clear day, but why am I the only one traveling this way. How strange the road you love should be so easy.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.