How Billie Sang

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Billie Holiday began singing in Harlem jazz clubs at sixteen, and made her first recordings in 1933, at the age of eighteen.

By the time she returned to the studio in 1935, she was a revelation — neither the white balladeers who dominated the Hit Parade nor the black blues queens from whose ranks she emerged provided a precedent for her.

“I’ll Be Seeing You,” sung by Jo Stafford.

Sung by Billie Holiday.

“Falling in Love Again,” sung by Marlene Dietrich.

Sung by Billie Holiday.

“Gimme a Pigfoot,” as sung by Bessie Smith.

Sung by Billie Holiday.

“I Cover the Waterfront,” as sung by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra credited Holiday as “the greatest single musical influence on me,” but Holiday downplayed the compliment, and admitted only to having told Sinatra

that he didn’t phrase right. He should bend certain notes. He says, “Lady, you aren’t commercial.” But I told him certain note at the end he could bend, and later he said I inspired him. Bending those notes — that’s all I helped Franke with.

As sung by Billie Holiday.

The poet Larry Neal, who was the education director of the Black Panther Party, wrote about Billie in his poem “Malcom X — An Autobiography”:

But there is rhythm here. Its own special substance:
I hear Billie sing, no good man, and dig Prez [saxophonist Lester Young], wearing
the Zoot
suit of life, the pork-pie hat tilted at the correct angle,
through the Harlem smoke of beer and whiskey, I
understand the
mystery of the signifying monkey,
in a blue haze of inspiration, I reach to the totality
of Being.

The Evolution of Bebop

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(Bird on Money, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s tribute to Charlie Parker.)

The song “Cherokee,” by the English dance-band leader Ray Noble:

Charlie Parker’s version:

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Parker said that, when playing “Cherokee,” he realized that the 12 semitones in any scale could take a piece of music from one key into any other, a realization that Arnold Schoenberg had also come to in Vienna earlier in the century.

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“Ko-Ko,” based on the harmonic progression (i.e. chord changes) of “Cherokee”:

How does Parker’s soloing represent a break from that of the saxophone masters who came before him? Can you hear how Lester Young improvises on the melody, while Bird goes deep into the harmony, skews it, and cobbles together new melodies from different scale degrees?

How does Parker’s version of “Lover Man” differ from Coleman Hawkins’s?

By the way, it was Lester Young who famously noted that he couldn’t play a tune because he didn’t know the words.