For various cultural and commercial reasons, Billie Holiday's later years with Commodore, American Decca, and Verve have garnered more attention than the early years of her career, not only in recent
American pop music abounds in tragic icons-artists such as Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and Charlie Parker, whose untimely ends extinguished talents so great that they still define their respective genres. Perhaps none is more iconic, or more tragic, than Billie Holiday, who has come to virtually personify the tortured torch singer of ever-sad songs.
Yet Holiday -- or "Lady Day," as her fellow fallen angel and longtime saxophone partner Lester Young dubbed her (as she famously nicknamed him "Pres") -- didn't always corner the market on melancholy. The jazz artist's early work for Columbia Records and its affiliates brimmed with youthful, sexy insouciance, a sound that surely represented a laugh to keep from crying sometimes, but often simply reflected a smile for the sake of it.
For various cultural and commercial reasons, Holiday's later years with Commodore, American Decca, and Verve have garnered more attention, not only in recent decades but even before her death at age 44 in 1959. Now, though, with the Oct. 6 release of Sony/Columbia/Legacy's super-deluxe 230-song, 10-CD boxed set "Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)," Holiday's early prime gets its full due; the set represents the latest, most glittering jewel in Columbia/Legacy's crown of jazz reissues, which shines with award-winning, best-selling boxed sets and catalog refurbishments for such pinnacle artists as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.
Moreover, Legacy's "Lady Day" stands as one of the most impressive, important sonic-restoration and archive-preservation projects of the latter CD era (and it looks forward to such next-generation formats as Super Audio CD). This has been made possible through the ongoing evolution of both the technologies and philosophies regarding the reissue of vintage music.
"Lady Day" consists of seven discs comprising all the master takes for Holiday's 78 rpm sides issued by Columbia, Brunswick, Vocalion, OKeh, and Harmony, plus three discs of rare broadcast performances and alternate takes. Priced at $169.98 list, the lavish, Grammy-worthy package includes an 11 and-a-half-inch-by-10-inch, 116-page book featuring artful photos and essays by noted jazz critic Gary Giddins and author Farah Griffin, as well as acute song annotations by producer Michael Brooks. (The set's other lead producer was veteran jazz reissue ace Michael Cuscuna, with co-production by Legacy VP of A&R Steve Berkowitz and VP of jazz marketing Seth Rothstein.)
"Lady Day" showcases Holiday in the company of some of the Swing Era's greatest musicians -- not only Lester Young but pianist/arranger Teddy Wilson and such names as Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, and Benny Carter -- not to mention the bands of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. In the early sessions, Holiday's voice was just another instrument in the band; on the Wilson dates, for instance, she only takes a chorus in the middle of a song, with the musicians framing her with state-of-the-art playing.
Cuscuna -- whose favorite era for Holiday had been the Commodore and Decca years -- says working on the Columbia set re-emphasized to him "how amazing the musicians were who worked with her at the time. One of the advantages of music before the advent of the long-playing record was that these players trained in how to make a statement of beauty and meaning in just 16 bars."
The best of "Lady Day" constitutes songs indelibly associated with Holiday: "I Cried for You," "My Man," "The Man I Love," "Gloomy Sunday," "Some Other Spring," "I Cover the Waterfront," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Easy Living," and her own compositions: "Billie's Blues," "Long Gone Blues," and "God Bless the Child." She also puts a special sway on such standards as "Summertime," "Night and Day," "Solitude," and "All of Me," as well as big-band classics like "Swing, Brother, Swing."
Not every song in the collection is a gem, though, and that remains a criticism of Holiday's Columbia tenure. The '30s were the age of the "song plugger" (a salesman paid a weekly rate to place a publishers' current songs), with publishers wielding real clout with record companies. But, as Brooks points out, Holiday's subtly virtuosic manner of interpretation -- marked by an elastic, instrumental sense of phrasing influenced by Louis Armstrong and the horn players who were her peers -- enabled her to triumph over subpar material.
"In the beginning, especially, some of the songs are awfully trite, just Tin Pan Alley throwaways," Brooks explains. "But she made the song infinitely better than it was; take her in 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do.' You forget the banal lyric and just feel the free, joyful spirit of Billie, who sounds like the epitome of a young woman in the full flush of a first love affair."
Like nearly all singers -- jazz and pop -- who followed Holiday, veteran jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln was profoundly influenced by the art of Lady Day. "I first heard her at 1," Lincoln says. "My sister brought home a record for the Victrola on my parents' farm in Michigan -- and I just felt her sound right away. What I learned from her later was to strive for originality, to be my own person -- which is what her spirit teaches us."
BRINGING GROOVES BACK TO LIFE
The process of digitally transferring the archaic source material, very carefully restoring the sound, and then remastering it at 24-bit/96-kHz was "unbelievably painstaking" for "Lady Day," Cuscuna says. Recorded in the pre-tape era, Holiday's sessions were produced for the 78 rpm record jukebox trade -- records with notoriously short shelf lives, both in the day and beyond. Even the musicians weren't thinking much beyond the sessions, Berkowitz says: "They were living life and making music -- they didn't think they were making history."
Brooks, Cuscuna, and company searched out the best surviving sources -- whether the metal-stamping parts, fragile acetate masters, and test pressings in the Sony Music Archives or vintage 78s held by collectors the world over (from Brooks' personal holdings and those of Harry Coster in the Netherlands to the collections at the Library of Congress and the Rutgers' Institute for Jazz Studies). The producers and engineers -- including Mark Wilder and Seth Foster at Sony Music Studios, who remastered the tracks -- created an ideal master by editing together multiple sources.
Holiday's Columbia material has seen light on CD before: Brooks oversaw the three-disc boxed-set anthology "The Legacy" and the nine-disc chronological series "The Quintessential Billie Holiday" in the late '80s (The boxed set is no longer available, and the "Quintessential" line will go off the market next year). Coming at the dawn of the CD, these products were produced with a mandate for the cleanest, quietest possible sound -- not necessarily the most musical or lifelike.
Computerized noise-reduction and digital remastering technologies and the use of them has grown far more subtle and sophisticated in recent years -- and, Cuscuna says, "so have the ears of producers, record executives, and consumers." In particular, Legacy has learned much from such sonically daunting projects as the Louis Armstrong "Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens" boxed set and the Bob Dylan "Royal Albert Hall 1966" set. Berkowitz says, "With the new Billie transfers, there's more music audible than ever before -- the breath on her voice, the swing of a guitar, the slap of the bass."
Looking beyond CD, Sony is storing the flat masters of the newly refurbished Holiday material in analog and digital for transfer to new sound carriers. The newly spatial qualities evident in the restored material have already persuaded Berkowitz to work on a Super Audio CD Holiday best-of title carrying both stereo and 5.1 surround sound, for release next year.
To be simultaneously issued with the boxed set is a quality-minded 36-track, two-CD "Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday" that draws on the restored masters. Likewise, existing Holiday compilations, such as the entry in Legacy's "Love Songs" series, will eventually be reprinted using the new masters. There will also be a new Holiday compilation series, such as "Billie's Blues," "Billie Sings Standards," and "Best of Billie Holiday and Lester Young." Next fall will see the individual release of the set's first seven volumes (which comprise the 153 commercial takes).
Excitement has been building among fans at retail and radio. "I always hold up Legacy as an example to other labels," says Borders Books & Music jazz buyer Jessica Sendra. "Everything they do is classy, from the A&R and packaging to pricing and promotion. As a fan and a retailer, I've been really anticipating their Billie box with phenomenal expectations."
At the new KJAZ Los Angeles -- the only commercial jazz outlet left in the U.S. (which is upgrading its signal to AM stereo) -- the programming consists of 30%-35% vocals, according to program director/drive-time host Lawrence Tanter. Legacy's costly, time-consuming investment in the very best sonic quality pays off for programmers "when we're trying to segue from a Diana Krall to a vintage Billie Holiday," he says. "So, it's exciting that they've done so much to upgrade the sound, because I can't wait to play that stuff for our audience. I'm really glad that there are executives out there in big companies like Sony who still support keeping this great music alive."