Billie Holiday

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Billie Holiday: The Legacy (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces 47724, three CDs, seventy tunes) includes all the recordings that won her an initial following. At first she specialized in silly tunes like “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and “Miss Brown to You,” managing to make them memorable with her bright, mocking voice and her trick of singing just behind the beat. But soon thereafter the mood began to darken. Her own bitter “God Bless the Child” and “Gloomy Sunday” (subtitled “The Hungarian Suicide Song”) were early hits, and when, in 1939, she became the star of Café Society, New York’s first officially integrated nightclub, she ended each set with “Strange Fruit,” a lament about lynching saved from bathos only by her stark, understated delivery.

Billie Holiday: The Complete Decca Recordings (Decca Records GRD2601, two CDs, fifty tunes) contains recordings made during and after the war, years during which the singer sought to reach a wider audience by recording with strings and vocal choruses, only to be sentenced to a term in federal prison for possession of narcotics that meant she would lose her New York cabaret card and thus be denied employment in city clubs.

The conventional wisdom about Holiday’s singing is that its quality fell off sharply during her final years, documented on Billie Holiday: The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959 (Verve Records 833765, ten CDs, 256 cuts, including snippets of rehearsal conversations). Certainly she sounded different in the 1950s from the 1930s. She never had either the volume or the range of her greatest contemporaries—Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, or the phenomenal Sarah Vaughan: “... it just go up a bit and come down a little bit,” she can be heard saying of her own voice during the rehearsal that makes up disc four. “This voice of mine’s a mess, a cat got to know what he’s doing when he plays with me.”

Long before her death, Holiday had followers more interested in her troubles than in her music.

And by the time she began recording in the Verve studios in 1952, dissipation had further damaged it. The voice in which she banters profanely with her musicians is thick and cracked, and in some performances it was failing her altogether. At the Newport Jazz Festival 1957 (disc ten), for example, she seemed a pathetic caricature of herself, her voice blurred by alcohol and drugs and exhaustion, stumbling over lyrics she had sung a thousand times before, abandoned even by the uncanny sense of time that had always been at the heart of her style.

But those rambling but fascinating studio conversations also show a perfectionist at work, adjusting and readjusting old arrangements, trying out new ones, changing time, key, instrumentation, determined always to make a good song better, a great song greater still. She could not bear to sing a song exactly the same way twice, she often said. “I just can’t do it. I can’t even copy me.” And when she pulled herself together, as she sometimes managed to do even toward the very end, she was, I believe, a finer singer than she had ever been, not because she had suffered so but because onstage and in the sound studio, if not in life, she had learned how to transcend her suffering and transform it into art.

The Masters of American Music may not be the most sophisticated series of videocassettes and laser discs to be found on the shelves of your local video store. Production budgets are relatively low, and the editing is mostly basic. But they are serious attempts at synthesizing the lives and works of some of American’s finest artists, filled with interviews with musicians and footage rarely seen elsewhere—including, on Lady Day , a haggard Holiday, listening dreamily, eyes closed, as a former lover, the equally fragile tenor saxophone star Lester Young, breathes a blues solo of supernatural delicacy in tribute to her.

Here are the rest of the titles currently available: Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music; The Story of Jazz; Satchmo: Louis Armstrong; Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One; Swingin’ the Blues: Count Basic; Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (enthusiastically reviewed in this space some years back); The World According to John Coltrane; Thelonious Monk: An American Composer; Ray Charles: The Genius of Soul .

Each one of them is worth seeing—and hearing.