Tag Archives: Billie Holiday

Remembering Billie Holiday, For Real

At today’s kickoff of Philadelphia Jazz Appreciation Month, it was music to my ears when Mayor Michael A. Nutter mentioned a news article about Billie Holiday in which I was quoted. I noted that Lady Day does not have a plaque on the Walk of Fame.

The Mayor is on it. He plans to talk with the Philadelphia Music Alliance, the nonprofit organization that’s responsible for the Walk of Fame. PMA touts that it is “Philadelphia’s largest and most important single monument honoring outstanding contributions to this city’s rich and diverse musical heritage.”

 

After the press conference, I introduced myself to Nutter. He immediately said we should work together to make sure Lady Day takes her rightful place among the jazz legends on the Avenue of the Arts.

Walk of Fame Plaques - Overview

I don’t think PMA needs to explain why Holiday does not have a plaque on the Walk of Fame. The nomination process seems to be straightforward. So while I don’t think any slight is intended, the oversight should be corrected as soon as possible.

For more info, contact All That Philly Jazz.

In Philadelphia, Jazz Lives

The 5th Annual Philadelphia Jazz Appreciation Month celebration is underway.

Jazz Lives - McCoy Tyner

The 2015 Philadelphia Jazz Honoree is West Philly native McCoy Tyner, a four-time Grammy winner and NEA Jazz Master. Mayor Michael A. Nutter gave Tyner an inscribed Liberty Bell, the equivalent of the keys to the city.

McCoy Tyner - 4.1.15

Tyner said his Philly roots are deep:

It’s wonderful to be back home in Philadelphia. I would like to thank the Mayor and the people of this great city for making this possible for me. No matter where I am in the world, Philadelphia always has a special place in my heart.

For information about Philadelphia Jazz Appreciation Month events, visit www.creativephl.org/jazz.

Attucks Hotel

Named after Crispus Attucks, the first patriot to die in the Boston Massacre, the Attucks Hotel was popular with black entertainers and athletes who weren’t permitted to stay at Philadelphia hotels that catered to whites. Guests included Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, Ella Fitzgerald, Redd Foxx, Satchel Paige and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote:

The year 1947 was a year of betrayal for [Billie] Holiday. She was at the peak of her career, earning upward of $60,000 a year, but hooked on heroin and opium. After a show at the Earle, her room at the Attucks Hotel was raided, and she was arrested on charges of narcotics possession.

From Monrovia Sound Studio:

Jelly Roll Morton and members of his orchestra would have had just a short drive of about 5 miles from the Attucks Hotel (then located at 801 S. 15th Street at the intersection of Catharine Street, Philadelphia, Pa.) to the R.C.A. studios in Camden, N.J. to carry out a contracted recording assignment. The route would have taken them across the Delaware River via the Delaware River Bridge (formally the Benjamin Franklin Bridge).

Attucks Hotel is now home to Universal Institute Charter School.

Hotel Attucks - Universal Institute Charter School

 

The school is part of Universal Companies, founded and chaired by legendary producer and songwriter, and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Kenny Gamble.

Women in Jazz Month

March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of women to jazz.

As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate the role that women in jazz played in paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement. While Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is well-documented, Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.

I also want to hihglight the pioneering women of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first racially-integrated all-female big band.

International Sweethearts of Rhythm

The 17-piece band was led by vocalist Anna Mae Winburn. The Sweethearts were popular in the 1940s. Indeed, they were one of the top swing bands, appearing on radio broadcasts, and touring the U.S. and Europe. The group disbanded in 1949.

Union Local 274

Founded in 1935, Union Local 274 was the second largest black American Federation of Musicians local. Black musicians were barred from the then-segregated Local 77.

Local 274 members included James Adams, Bill “Mr. C” Carney, Trudy Pitts, Duke Ellington, Benny Golson, Count Basie, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Stitt, Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughan, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Shirley Scott, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy and Percy Heath, Jimmy Oliver, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Doggett, Jimmy McGriff and Nina Simone. The Clef Club, its social arm, was the place for weekend jam sessions. The bar and performance space was open to jazz musicians and enthusiasts.

In his autobiography, I Was Not Asked, noted educator and music scholar Dr. George E. Allen wrote:

Many Philadelphia African American jazz musicians attributed their success to the atmosphere and fellowship at Black Local 274. For aspiring musicians, the Local was a training ground for developing their reputation and experimenting with new musical concepts. Local 274 was also a place where African American musicians sought refuge from racial prejudice and discrimination. In the union club during the jam sessions, musicians were encouraged to pursue musical careers through the applause of grassroots Philadelphia African Americans who loved and respected them and the visiting jazz musicians who were playing in the local clubs. Many members of Local 274 joined because of these benefits. The atmosphere inspired both African American and white musicians. They learned by listening to the music performed at the Union and socializing with the many musicians who congregated there.

Local 274 resisted forced amalgamation, or integration, with Local 77. As a result, the American Federation of Musicians cancelled its charter in 1971. But the story didn’t end there. Historian and archivist Diane Turner wrote her dissertation on Local 274. In an interview with ExplorePA.com, Dr. Turner said:

Local 274 saw what was happening to other black Locals and refused to join 77. But she says Jimmy Adams…the local’s president at the time…realized a merger might be unavoidable:

Do we want 77 to have control over what we built? It took us years to build through dues, our property and so forth. So he came up with the idea to start a cultural wing of Local 274 and incorporate it, and transfer all of their assets and property into the Philadelphia Clef Club.

In 1966, Adams incorporated the Philadelphia Clef Club. All Local 274 assets, including the union hall were transferred for $1.00.

Union Local 274 Headquarters

The Philadelphia Clef Club for Jazz and the Performing Arts celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016.

Emerson’s Tavern

Emerson’s Tavern was listed in The Negro Motorist Travel Guide. According to The John Coltrane Reference on June 17, 1948, Coltrane and Percy Heath stopped by Emerson’s to see saxophonist Lester Young.Emerson's Tavern

Billie Holiday’s gig at the South Philly dive bar on March 14, 1959 — four months before her death — is the setting for the Broadway play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill - Playbill
Audra McDonald won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.

The Hunting of Billie Holiday

In a new book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” Johann Hari writes how Billie Holiday was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics after she refused to be silent about racism:

One night, in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York City and sang a song that was unlike anything anyone had heard before. ‘Strange Fruit’ was a musical lament against lynching. It imagined black bodies hanging from trees as a dark fruit native to the South. Here was a black woman, before a mixed audience, grieving for the racist murders in the United States. Immediately after, Billie Holiday received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Harry had heard whispers that she was using heroin, and—after she flatly refused to be silent about racism—he assigned an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to track her every move. Harry hated to hire black agents, but if he sent white guys into Harlem and Baltimore, they stood out straight away. Jimmy Fletcher was the answer. His job was to bust his own people, but Anslinger was insistent that no black man in his Bureau could ever become a white man’s boss. Jimmy was allowed through the door at the Bureau, but never up the stairs. He was and would remain an “archive man”—a street agent whose job was to figure out who was selling, who was supplying and who should be busted. He would carry large amounts of drugs with him, and he was allowed to deal drugs himself so he could gain the confidence of the people he was secretly plotting to arrest.

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Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was a true artist of her day and rose as a social phenomenon in the 1950s. Her soulful, unique singing voice and her ability to boldly turn any material that she confronted into her own music made her a superstar of her time. Today, Holiday is remembered for her masterpieces, creativity and vivacity, as many of Holiday’s songs are as well known today as they were decades ago. Holiday’s poignant voice is still considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.

Holiday began working with Lester Young in 1936, who pegged her with her now-famous nickname of “Lady Day.” When Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937 and then Artie Shaw in 1938, she became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra, an impressive accomplishment of her time. In the 1930s, when Holiday was working with Columbia Records, she was first introduced to the poem “Strange Fruit,” an emotional piece about the lynching of a black man. Though Columbia would not allow her to record the piece due to subject matter, Holiday went on to record the song with an alternate label, Commodore, and the song eventually became one of Holiday’s classics.

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Billie Holiday Plaque