Billie Holiday, one of the great jazz singers, was born April 7, 1915. She recounted her hard life in the autobiography Lady sings the blues, but despite her suffering at the hands of family, a racist society, and her own addictions, despite the smoky, world-weary voice of her later years, the joy her music brought to others is immeasurable.
Holiday was nicknamed “Lady Day” by tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who she in turn nicknamed “Prez.” From their first recording together in 1937, they remained friends for the rest of their too brief lives, collaborating again for the 1957 television program “The Sound of Jazz” before dying within months of each other in 1959.
Holiday has recently been subject to a “remix and reimagination,” as if 21st century ears needed training wheels to hear beauty. Perhaps her memory is better served by those who pay more direct homage to her, like singer Madeleine Peyroux and even humorist David Sedaris, who does a spot-on impression of Holiday singing “Away in a manger.”
The Music Division is home to the collections of two photographers who memorably captured the essence of Billie Holiday. See photos of her in the William P. Gottlieb Collection and the Carl Van Vechten Collection in American Memory. Read more about Billie Holiday in The Wise Guide and Today in History: April 7 in American Memory.