FEW people alive today, even among her most ardent fans, have heard Billie Holiday other than on recordings or seen her other than in photographs and random film clips. Holiday was eighteen years old and a worldly former prostitute when she recorded "Your Mother's Son-in-Law" with Benny Goodman in 1933; she died from the cumulative effects of heroin and alcohol in 1959, a ravaged forty-four. Yet with the obvious exception of Frank Sinatra, who was born in the same year as Holiday but outlived her by almost four decades, no other recording artist from the first half of the twentieth century seems more real to us -- more like our contemporary.
Jazz aficionados have always enjoyed nothing more than debating the relative merits of different performers. But when conversation turns to Billie Holiday, the only way to start a fight is to state a preference for early, middle, or late -- her jaunty recordings of the 1930s, her diva-like ballads of the 1940s, or her work from the 1950s, when she had almost nothing left but compensated for her husk of a voice with the intimacy of her phrasing (closer to speech than song). That Holiday was the greatest woman jazz singer ever is accepted as incontestable fact, no matter how fond you or the person you're talking to might be of Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughan.
But Holiday has never appealed exclusively to jazz listeners, nor has her appeal ever depended solely on her vocal artistry. As was true in 1939, when she first sang the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit," to an audience consisting mostly of bohemian artists and left-wing intellectuals at Café Society (a Greenwich Village nightclub whose owner, Barney Josephson, and regular patrons were as committed to racial integration as they were to the finest in jazz and cabaret), many people today are unable to listen to Holiday without projecting into whatever lyric she happens to be singing their sense of her as a martyr to an uncaring world and to her own bad judgment.