Upon completing the book Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, I made the grave mistake of gleaming a few of the many already published reviews. One in particular by Matt Schudel of The Washington Post began with “No figure in American music led a more interesting, troubled and tragic life than Billie Holiday.”, but that just isn’t the case. So many, like Bix Beiderbecke, Elvis Presley, Michael Hutchence, Michael Jackson and more recently Amy Winehouse come to mind.
The je nais se quoi of Billie Holiday was her music.
In regard to the book itself, music biographies often have a tendency to get bogged down in the drama of the artist’s life seemingly for the sake of drama itself, but Mr. Szwed avoided those pitfalls. The closest thing to drama was a few rich white people who threatened to sue Billie if their names showed up in her autobiography, likely with just cause. At any rate, the book is an enjoyable and easy read at just under two hundred pages, and the author makes short work of the mythology part of the story in just under seventy-five pages.
Then it’s on to the last hundred and twenty pages, the Musician. That was the most fun to read, chock full of the art. How it came to be, who may have been an influence as well as who opened doors or facilitated recording sessions, as well as the iconic musicians she played alongside. Best of all was the eloquent telling of how Billie Holiday played, and how her timing, and her sense of rhythm makes her music so… Billie Holiday.
Music is very personal, and I personally love the sound of Billie’s voice. To me, her voice is haunting and enchanting, happy and sad, and reading this very precise biography helped me to understand the creative process by which Billie Holiday came to create her unique sound. You either get Billie, or you don’t, and like the critics of her time, you either love her or hate her. From his writing, I got the distinct impression that John Szwed loved her, maybe even more than I do.
So there you have it from an avid reader of music biography, Jazz enthusiast and student of popular music history who fancies himself an amateur book reviewer; at fewer than two hundred pages, Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth is well worth the read, rich with information for such a short book. Not to say it was a quick read, quite the opposite. In the final stretch, as the author broke down the crafting of each song, I just had to stop and listen to each and every one.
And on the off chance you’re not familiar with Billie Holiday, you don’t know what you’re missing, so feel free to use the last two chapters of this biography to become acquainted with her, and her remarkable output of truly unique music. In the case of Billie Holiday, it is the music itself that is the rich legacy, not the trials and tribulation of her life.