Listening to Billie Holliday creates a mood. I close my eyes, and I am in a smoky club on 57th Street in the late-1940's, a martini sweating on the table, and a handsome, rather than beautiful, woman takes the stage, with Oscar Peterson sitting down at the piano, a white gardenia is in her hair, and she smiles demurely, thanking the crowd. She then begins to sing, and everything this woman has ever experienced, good and bad, comes through each note, each phrase, even in the tonality and timbre of her voice. There are times I wish I owned a double-breasted suit and a fedora.
In 1957, CBS TV put on one of the most amazing TV specials ever, assembling the greatest musicians America has ever produced and showcasing the most powerful music America has ever come up with. Among the highlights of that night was a reunion of sorts. Lady Day had spent many years close to Lester "Prez" Young, but had grown distant. In an all-star combo (including Gerry Mulligan) on Holliday's own "Fine And Mellow", Prez stood for a solo, and you can watch her face as she smiles and nods.
The most famous song Holliday ever did was one written especially for her. An anti-lynching song written by a Marxist New York public school teacher, "Strange Fruit" is the kind of song that shocks, yet Holliday's voice, with all its limits, and all the vulnerability she would not display when not singing, managed to capture the song perfectly.
Finally, here she is doing "Lover Man", sweetened with strings, yet with her unique phrasing that cannot be buried in the saccharine of the arrangement.