Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth

by John Szwed


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“Revelatory . . . one of the most briskly revealing pieces of jazz biography that I’ve read.” —Richard Brody, The New Yorker
When Billie Holiday first stepped into a recording studio in November 1933, it marked the beginning of what is arguably the most remarkable and influential career in twentieth-century popular music. Her voice weathered countless shifts in popular taste, and today new reincarnations of her continue to arrive, most recently in the form of singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele.
Most of the writing on Holiday has focused on the tragic details of her life—her prostitution at the age of fourteen, her heroin addiction and alcoholism, her series of abusive relationships—or tried to correct the many fabrications of her autobiography. But Billie Holiday strips away the myths and puts her music front and center, staying close to her artistry, her performance style, and the self she created and put on record and onstage.
Drawing on a vast amount of new material that has surfaced in the last decade, critically acclaimed jazz writer and musician John Szwed presents not just a biography, but a meditation on Billie Holiday’s art and its relation to her life. Along the way, he illuminates her influences, her uncanny voice and rhythmic genius, her signature songs—including Strange Fruit and God Bless the Child—and her enduring legacy as the greatest jazz singer of all time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143107965
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 455,354
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John Szwed is a professor of music and director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. As a jazz musician, he played professionally for more than a decade. He is the author of sixteen books, including So What: The Life of Miles Davis, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, and Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

The Myth 9

Chapter 1 The Book I: Lady Sings the Blues 11

Chapter 2 The Book II: The Rest of the Story 27

Chapter 3 The Image: Film, Television, and Photography 55

The Musician 75

Chapter 4 The Prehistory of a Singer 77

Chapter 5 The Singer I 97

Chapter 6 The Singer II 115

Chapter 7 The Songs I 131

Chapter 8 The Songs II 171

Acknowledgments 199

Notes 203

Index 221

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Alan Lomax:  The Man Who Recorded the World 
[Starred review] "Factually tireless and fluently analytical, Szwed gamely corrals a great river of events, efforts, and discoveries into a straight-ahead portrait of an intrepid, culture-defining artist and humanist."  
"Szwed is a sensitive interpreter of music. . . he is meticulous about the work, and makes a strong case for Lomax as a central figure in the history of American music."  
The New Yorker 
"A keenly appreciative, enormously detailed new Lomax biography." 
The New York Times 
"John Szwed has written a graceful and informative cradle-to-grave study that's a perfect marriage of author and subject." 
Douglas Brinkley, Texas Monthly 
So What: The Life of Miles Davis 

"...Szwed offers crisply detailed backstories to such masterpieces as Sketches of Spain, Round About Midnight and Miles Ahead. His prose has a musical pulse, and he highlights the most significant element of Davis's soul: "he told every woman he became involved with that music always came first, before family, children, lovers, friends." Davis's music has been called a "divine disease," and this in-depth study clarifies the nature of that compulsive, satisfying malady in a way that will enlighten listeners and musicians." 
—Publishers Weekly 

Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra 

"... Szwed has produced a rare jazz biography—one that takes full account of the history that shaped the music and its central personalities. An anthropologist, historian and musicologist who teaches at Yale, Szwed brings an impressive array of skills to this job. He needs them all to track down a subject whose every word seems intended to protect him from scrutiny." 
—Brent Staples, The New York Times Book Review 

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