I didn’t discover jazz until I was in my twenties. My brother-in-law is a jazz trumpet player and just as talented a musician as his brother, my ex-husband, though arguably more successful.
When I was stationed in Italy the brother-in-law came on tour with his band and it was my first real introduction to jazz. I found I liked the trumpet, and I loved the saxophone, but it was the ensemble I truly adored, especially live when you can see them riff off each other.
Not a lot of jazz available to watch live on an Italian Air Force base or on my next assignment in Enid, Oklahoma. So I listened to Miles Davis and John Coltrane cassettes. I soon discovered Etta James, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.
To this day I have never heard anyone sing Summertime better than Billie Holiday. You all can argue all you want but her version is the best, hands down. When I’m in the mood to wallow, I will listen to Gloomy Sunday on repeat. On the rare occasions when I cook my signature pasta dish, I will have a glass of wine and let Billie’s beautiful voice play.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I discovered “Strange Fruit”, her protest song about lynchings. It is haunting and beautiful and awful and uncomfortable.
I also learned that she was a bisexual and apparently had a torrid affair with Tallulah Bankhead in the 1940s. However, her biographer was not allowed to put that in the book. Despite knowing that, I still have that book, “Lady Sings the Blues”, in my TBR. I also have plans to one day, in my spare time, watch “The United States vs Billie Holliday.”
If you’ve never heard her sing, something I find unfathomable, you are missing out on something really special. Start with Summertime.