Why Billie Holiday Matters

“You never heard singing so lazy, so slow, with such a drawl,” Ralph Cooper said as he urged the Apollo to hire a new young singer he’d discovered in a club in Harlem. “I don’t know what it is but you got to hear her.”

It’s called jazz singing today. Back then they called it Billie Holiday.

Ahead of Lady Day’s 100th birthday this Tuesday, April 7, music lovers are extoling the virtues of the pivotal song stylist whose unique phrasing “created the standards by which jazz singers are judged,” as one writer put it.

Biographer John Szwed described her style as “falling behind the beat, floating, breathing where it’s not expected, scooping up notes and then letting them fall.”

Billie herself described her style more matter-of-factly: “I don’t feel like I’m singing,” she said, “I feel like I’m playing a horn.”

Her intuition as an instrumentalist fascinates music aficionados to this day.

Ran Blake, pianist and educator at New England Conservatory, told the New York Times that, due to its complex rhythm-melody interplay, students find notating Billie Holiday’s Deep Song“vastly harder than five or six bars of a Bartok piece.”

“She was extremely sophisticated in her understanding of harmony and melody,” Wynton Marsalis, Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Centre, told TIME.

His colleague Phil Schaap, Curator of Jazz, told NPR Billie’s inventiveness and emotional intensity was “genius” and “beyond words.”

“She can make you hear the rhythm section if it’s not there, and make them play better if they are,” he said. “I think Billie Holiday is the greatest.”

Frank Sinatra thought so too. After hearing Billie Holiday in 1939 at the Uptown House, he modeled his singing after hers. And when Joni Mitchell heard “Solitude” at age 9, she decided she wanted to sing.

Her innovative behind-the-beat phrasing soared through time and across musical genres, the Times notes, influencing artists as diverse as James Brown, Bob Dylan and Erykah Badu.

Even hip hop borrows elements of Billie Holiday’s style. Singer José James, who will be tributing Lady Day this week in New York, told the National Post Lady’s “lean-back” inspired DJ J Dilla and Roots drummer Questlove.

Billie Holiday’s indelible contribution to American music will be celebrated widely over the coming weeks and months. The Apollo will be honoring Lady Day with a star on its Walk of Fame on Monday night, and Lincoln Center will be hosting a 4-day Billie Holiday Festival April 9-12.

Outside New York, tribute concert tributes are planned from Louisville to Lahti, Finland.

Racism, abuse, hard drinking, and drugs were inseparable from Lady Day’s suffering, and thus her art, and they are part of what make her an undying mythic figure of American culture.

But on her 100th birthday, it is not the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s life we acknowledge but the courage and musical wizardry with which she articulated that suffering. We are all indebted in some way to Billie Holiday, even if some of us don’t know it.