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“Lady Day – The Many Faces of Billie Holiday” is another
excellent installment in the television series, “Masters of
American Music,” dating from 1990 and released on DVD
by the EuroArts label, during 2009.

As with the other subjects of this series, Billie Holiday’s
(1915-1959) life story is told with insight and commentary
from Jazz luminaries living as of 1990, who either knew
or worked with Ms. Holiday. These performers included
Carmen McRae, Buck Clayton, Harry “Sweets” Edison,
Mal Waldron and Annie Ross, among others.

This documentary was different from the others that I’ve seen
in the series, because it offered a first-person narrative by
actress Ruby Dee, reading from Ms. Holiday’s 1956
“autobiography,” The Lady Sings the Blues. While this was
an interesting technique, many of the aforementioned
Jazz luminaries indicated that the book was ghost written
and somewhat fabricated, in an effort to earn money.
Apparently, Billie may not have participated much in the
writing process.

What does emerge from this film is a portrait of a singer
who, with Louis Armstrong, has been credited with inventing
modern Jazz singing. Billie Holiday began singing in her teens,
and later became the top-selling Jazz singer in America. At the
peak of her career, she earned about $2,000.00 per week,
singing in clubs with small combos, which were her preferred
and most effective musical configuration. Many of those
interviewed emphasized that Ms. Holiday seemed to really
“live” the lyrics of the songs she sang. Although her vocal
instrument may not have had the most opulent sound, her
sense of phrasing and “delivery” of lyrics more than
compensated for her lack of tonal beauty.

Naturally, the film discussed her childhood in a broken
family that was involved in prostitution, as well as her
substance abuse problems. Fortunately however, the
music was the main focus here. There are valuable film
clips of Billie Holiday performing with Artie Shaw, Louis
Armstrong, Lester Young, and Benny Goodman. This
DVD even has archive footage of Bessie Smith!

Although her voice has always been something of an
“acquired taste” for me, Billie Holiday’s interpretation
of the right song while in her vocal prime, is quite
moving. This 59-minute DVD illustrates just how
effective this ultimately tragic artist could be.