Billie Holiday and the Cult of Jazz Machismo

How Lady Day was the first woman allowed to be a jazz musician.

by
Holiday records in New York in 1957. Credit: Don Hunstein/Columbia Records/Getty Images.

Women have made jazz since it began. This is not a revolutionary statement, nor should it be a particularly surprising one. Whatever biases might have added hurdles, half the population was not successfully kept from playing and singing and leaving an indelible mark upon the development of the music — although too many of those women are tragically absent from most jazz histories.

That’s because starting from the moment that jazz music was deemed extraordinary, the fruit of singular talent and skill, women were thought to be incapable of contributing to it in any significant way. Creativity, innovation, virtuosity — traits of jazz’s top talent also happened to be, more often than not, coded masculine. 

Within a few decades of the genre’s birth, the term “jazz” had gained a certain cachet, a meaning that separated it from its popular and blues cousins. That music was just fine, the jazz fans would say, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the real stuff. In essence, to these fans — the same fans and critics who wrote the often-prevailing narratives of jazz history — one of the things that made jazz so good was its masculinity. As the tradition changed from being popular music to a cult for aficionados, the number of women within it who were taken seriously shrank accordingly. And the first one to break into that cult was Billie Holiday.

“Can singing be jazz?” the critic and musician Leonard Feather asked in 1953, as part of a kind of jazz FAQ published in Redbook magazine. “Yes, but we are reminded again of the slender borderline between jazz and popular music. The jazz fans have their favorite singers, some of whom use inflections and phrasing of an unmistakably jazz nature.” Billie Holiday was chief among his cited examples. 

By the last few years of her life, Holiday’s status at the top of the true jazz head’s heap had been cemented thanks in large part to the attention her gutting 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, drew to both her back catalog and the newer sides she had recorded for Verve. The legend of Billie, which still holds plenty of people in its thrall today, placed her in a lineage of jazzmen whose hard and fast living supposedly leant their music authenticity. “The music was now permeated by a mythology, one that romanticized the jazz life, and celebrated its leading practitioners as defiant, rebellious youths determined to go their own way in music, as in other pursuits,” as Ted Gioia puts it in his The History of Jazz

Chronicling her hard knocks, though, ultimately just put the spotlight back on her music — giving her some small portion of the respect she’d more than earned decades earlier. “You simply must have it, if you are a believer in the true jazz religion,” Robert Sylvester wrote of a Holiday reissue in the Daily News in 1955. “Unlike almost all those who are classified as jazz singers, Billie Holiday is basically neither a blues singer nor that type of singer of popular ballads who is identified as a ‘pop’ singer,” said John S. Wilson in the New York Times three years later. “She is, purely and simply, a jazz singer.”

Who were John Wilson and Robert Sylvester to determine what was and wasn’t “jazz,” anyway? Their qualifications certainly weren’t any more impressive than all the musicians who had been influenced by Holiday’s phrasing and inflection. Yet approval from them and people like them opened up a world of possibilities. Plenty of Holiday’s jazz-singing peers had made outstanding records, but none of them had been able to prove full legitimacy, to make the weight of their contributions felt during their era.

Sadly, the timing of this shift in critical appraisal prevented Holiday from taking full advantage of it; she was simply too ill and too neglected by the systems that had already failed her. Instead, the talented, original singers she left in her wake, like Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter, had some ghost of a chance of getting the space and resources to create. 

It’s hard to call what Holiday received respect, given the deep misogynoir that impacted every facet of her existence. Bystanders loved to comment on how tragic her life was, with all its salacious tabloid fodder and obvious abuse woven together in their minds, while doing nothing to help her. “Billie was produced and destroyed by the same society,” as James Baldwin wrote shortly after her death in 1959. “It had not the faintest intention of producing her and did not intend to destroy her; but it has managed to do both with the same bland lack of concern.” It was likely a small comfort that some jazz nerds had decided her life’s work was genuine when she was lying handcuffed to her deathbed.

Packaging all that tragedy helped crystallize Holiday’s artistic legacy as one of genius rather than as just another skillful singer. But it’s the music that endures: the inimitable understatement, the singular voice, the unique depth of feeling. It’s jazz, but more importantly it’s art — an intentional expression that gives a literal and figurative voice to Black women, this country’s most ignored people. 

In that light, one of the biggest tragedies of Holiday’s life might be that it doesn’t seem like she ever saw that radiance in herself. During a 1956 interview, Mike Wallace asked her what she thought she had in common with some of the actresses she most admired. She responded, “Why, they’re actresses, they’re artists. I look at them, like, ‘Wow.’” 

“And you don’t consider yourself in the same league?” he replied.

“No, my God, no!” Holiday concluded. 

Simply by insisting on her own sound and story, though, Holiday made it easier for every woman who followed to assert her own brilliance. 

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