“I Hear Music” (1940) Billie Holiday

“I Hear Music”

Composed by Frank Loesser (lyric) and Burton Lane (music).

Recorded by Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra for Okeh Records in New York on September 12, 1940.

Billie Holiday, vocal, with: Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Don Redman and Jimmy Hamilton, alto saxophones; Don Byas and Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Teddy Wilson, piano; John Collins, guitar; Al Hall, bass; Kenny Clarke, drums. Arrangement and direction by Don Redman.

The story:

billie-6Born Eleanora Fagan Gough, on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as Billie Holiday, she was one of the most individual of jazz singers. Her early childhood was spent in poverty in Baltimore. As she grew into womanhood, she became strikingly beautiful, and was assaulted sexually probably on more than one occasion. She and her mother moved to Harlem in the late 1920s, and for a time she worked there as a prostitute to earn enough money for her mother and her to survive. After being jailed for this, she turned to singing for tips in various Harlem speakeasys to earn a living. It was in one of these that she was discovered by John Hammond, who arranged for her to make her first recordings in 1933. Shortly after, in 1935, she began a lengthy and successful association on records with the pianist Teddy Wilson (pictured below right). These recordings reveal the fully formed Holiday style: a very relaxed, almost elastic rhythmic approach, gentle improvisation, and great intimacy. On these sessions as backup performers were some of the finest jazz musicians of the time. She worked in Count Basie’s band in 1937–1938, and then spent the balance of 1938 in Artie Shaw’s band. Since she had her own recording contract, she could not maketeddy records with either Basie or Shaw. After leaving Shaw, she embarked on a career as a soloist  which would continue, with varying degrees of success, for the next two decades. Because of the harrowing experiences of her early life, Holiday sought refuge in drugs, starting in the 1940s, and later, alcohol. This caused her much personal and professional pain. She died on July 17, 1959, in Manhattan from cirrhosis of the liver.

Billie Holiday was one of the greatest singers of the swing era. Although she had a “small” voice and not great range, her way with any song was utterly personal. Her use of rhythm was completely congruent with that of the best jazz musicians of the swing era. Despite her great beauty and talent (or perhaps because of them), there were many demons in her life. Through most of her career, she was able to channel her pain in a way that resulted in strongly emotionally affecting performances. Paradoxically, she could transmit joy to her listeners equally as strongly as she could convey sadness, heartbreak and longing.

The music:

images-12This recording of “I Hear Music” is happy, swinging and fun, but its musical content is nevertheless very high. Arranger Don Redman, one of the pioneers of swing arranging, fashioned a loosely swinging, uncluttered background for Ms. Holiday to sing against. Billie takes the first chorus, singing and swinging along with her backup band as though she were a jazz instrumentalist. The rhythm section, led by pianist Teddy Wilson, one of her most frequent accompanists on records in the mid-to late 1930s, is tight but light. Wilson’s subtle, swinging accompaniment allows Billie to soar. Also notable among the rhythm players was drummer Kenny Clarke, who soon would be among the first to adjust his playing to the rhythms of bebop.

The both of the jazz soloists then play with inspiration: trumpeter Roy Eldridge (pictured at right), one of the georgie-3leading jazz soloists on his instrument then, using a cup mute, plays in a way that points to things to come in roy-7jazz–it is remarkably “modern” for 1940. Tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld (pictured to the right of Eldridge), soon to become a member of Benny Goodman’s big band and Sextet, plays in a robust and creative way. Both solos are top-shelf jazz. Notice the rhythmic patina applied by Kenny Clarke’s using his drums and cymbals. His playing is colorful and wonderfully supportive, yet never obtrusive. Billie returns after the solos to wrap up this joyful recording. And to think that all of this happened so apparently casually, with an ad hoc band assembled simply to provide Billie a supportive backing.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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