Archive for Billie Holiday

Bye Bye Blackbird

Posted in Categories with tags , , on June 19, 2013 by Richard

Simone_AtVillageGateNina Simone’s rendition of the 1920s Tin Pan Alley standard ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, which appeared on her 1962 album At the Village Gate, provides a fine example of the artist’s classically-flavoured style. The version recorded by Simone and her band is an instrumental one; shorn of the familiar lyrics, the resulting performance showcases instrumental virtuosity, in particular the musical alchemy between Simone and guitarist Al Shackman. Simone’s piano introduction is restrained and elegant, initially offering few clues to the identity of the song, then allowing fragments of the melody to enter. After nearly two minutes, Simone shifts to comping at the piano as if for a standard jazz rendition of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and Shackman assumes the spotlight, the growing dynamism of his guitar work amplified and underlined by Bobby Hamilton’s drum fills. At 3:32 Simone asserts her leadership via an insistently repeated note that pecks at the “Blackbird” melody before developing first into a jazz solo, then alternating scattered jazz notes with waves of tones and scales more associated with the teleology of classical style. Yet, even as she channels the techniques of European virtuosi from Bach to Liszt, the addition, at the six-minute mark, of wordless, scatted vocals, “blackens” the music, claiming it for a jazz-singing tradition that leads from Louis Armstrong to Abbey Lincoln and beyond. To use a less explicit term (though its use is no less resonant in its racial implications), we could follow Farah Jasmin Griffin and Salim Washington in their description of the way Billie Holiday “blued” the material she performed.

This description of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ runs the risk of suggesting that there are clear points when Simone switches from one style (jazz) to another (classical). For the purposes of analysis, of course, it is necessary to identify decisive, illustrative moments in the recording. Analysis requires at least the fantasy of stasis, of moments frozen long enough for interpretation to take place. Music, however, is a flowing, temporal experience and, while its temporal qualities do not make it resistant to analysis, we must remain alive to the ways in which various elements coalesce, mutate, relate, respond to, reflect and feed each other. The processes of “blackening” or “blueing” suggest ways by which we can recognize such flow in Simone’s work. The interlacing, or overlaying, of the scatted vocal with classical piano style on ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ highlights the extent to which we should stay alive to the hybridizing processes of musical performance even as we apply our attention to particular musical objects. Such processes are often recognized in discourse about music, for example when artists are described as “jazzing” or “jazzing up” pieces of music not previously associated with the genre of jazz. Nina Simone’s work invites us to see classical music as a process too, to note the inclusion into popular songs of certain signifiers of classical style (certain types of motivic figures, certain conventions, sections which are not “jazzed”, which stay close to “the rules”). Describing the music of Chicago, in his poem ‘The Windy City’, Carl Sandburg used the memorable phrase “they jazz the classics”; perhaps we could see Simone’s contribution to black classical music as a determination to “classicalize” jazz.

Strange Fruit

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on June 2, 2013 by Richard

Billie Holiday began performing ‘Strange Fruit’, the anti-lynching song written by Abel Meeropol (under the pen-name “Lewis Allan”), in 1939.  It was, as David Margolick notes, a difficult song to categorize at the time: “too artsy to be folk music, too explicitly political and polemical to be jazz”. Although jazz would come to be seen as a vital medium for the expression of discontent by the time Nina Simone came to record Meeropol’s song, this was not the case in 1939. Dorian Lynskey identifies the newness and strangeness of ‘Strange Fruit’ in the way it alienated audiences rather than inviting complicity or solidarity as contemporaneous propaganda songs tended to. Rather than aiming for collaboration, “the music, stealthy, half in shadow, incarnated the horror described in the lyric” (Lysnkey).

The artistry of the song (and of Holiday’s timeless performance) has invited debates about the relationship between art, popular music and protest, something Simone would have understood very clearly in her self-written protest songs and in the artistic license she took with those of others. Years later, reflecting on her attitude to protest songs during the 1960s, she wrote:

Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me I had musical problems as well: how can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like “protest music” because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate.

Simone’s attitude changed as she began to compose her own protest material and to politicize that of others. Like Holiday, she would take protest material into the supper clubs and, like Meeropol and Holiday, she would make it art.

Simone-strange-fruit

Janell Hobson, like Lynskey, notes Holiday’s ability to avoid the potential pathos of ‘Strange Fruit’ and to avoid sentimentality through the use of ironic distance. Meeropol’s words, for Hobson, fetishize the black body, which is “rendered metaphorically, even romantically, as ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees'”. Holiday’s vocal “bring[s] alive the poem’s ironic edge by invoking the cynicism and despair that elevated the song from sentimentality to poignancy”. This is achieved through moments such as Holiday’s “sour” delivery of the word “bitter” and “the long, drawn-out off-key intonation of the word crop”. For her part, Simone moves between Holiday’s ironic stillness and a more anguished cry. She offers a solo piano reading with little of the mercury virtuosity of many of her recitals, opting instead for slow-moving chords over which she stretches her voice, quiet at first, rising in volume at the mention of “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”, then dropping again.  As the song progresses, she moves through sadness, poignancy and horror, the latter articulated via the shadow of her grainy breath, which is audible at certain points. At no point does she sound sentimental, although she manages this avoidance in a manner distinct from Holiday’s. Where Holiday had adopted a distracted, flat and ironic (“sour”) tone, one which meant that the potentially “voyeuristic” lines were granted an almost Brechtian alienation, Simone’s is a more chiaroscuro reading, its light and dark textures unfolding the grim tale in the manner of a film noir. In the latter stages of the song, Simone starts to stretch the words to ever greater lengths, spending ten startling seconds on the word “leaves” (2:24-34). She saves the greatest amount of articulation for the final “crop”, substituting Holiday’s inquisitive articulation of the word for four swiftly traversed notes.

Simone’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, with its shift between flatness and depth of field, provides further evidence that, for her, blankness and the neutral tone were part of a wider set of performance dynamics that also included the sass of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and the controlled vulnerability (or vulnerable control) of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Maria Callas. Perhaps one of the reasons she insisted on identifying with Callas rather than Holiday was a recognition of the multiplicity of roles she could and would play, not only within a concert performance, but even within one song.

Speaking about ‘Strange Fruit’ a few years after first recording it, Simone described it as “about the ugliest song I’ve ever heard”. She can be seen talking about the song in the following clip (from 5:30 onwards):