Chuck Ross

Fine and Mellow: One of the Best Performances Ever on Broadway

Jun 25, 2014

My first exposure to jazz was the records my dad played while I was growing up. They were primarily of female vocalists: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.

Of all these recordings, there was one that stood out: A live performance of Billie Holiday from Carnegie Hall recorded during a concert on Saturday, Nov. 10, 1956.

What was most striking about this LP is that after several tracks of Holiday singing, a narrator with a most mellifluous voice would read the most horrible things about Holiday’s knockabout life, taken from her autobiography, co-written by William Dufty, titled “Lady Sings the Blues.” (This book was also the source material for the 1972 movie with the same title, starring Diana Ross.)

Below is an excerpt from the liner notes for that LP, in an edition released in 1961, two years after Holiday died, much too early, at age 44, on July 17, 1959. At the end, her tough life was punctuated by cirrhosis of the liver due to her drinking, but clearly her heart and other essential organs, such as her kidneys, were in bad shape as well, according to various accounts at the time. She also had been a heroin addict for years.

The writer of the liner notes is Gilbert Millstein, who was a writer and reviewer for The New York Times at the time. He was later a news editor on “NBC Nightly News.” He was also the narrator of the Holiday concert:

I was called on to narrate, between groups of songs, portions of Miss Holiday’s autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” that, in their way, would exemplify what it was she was singing about. The narration began with the ironic account of her birth in Baltimore — “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three” — and ended, very nearly shyly, with her hope for love and a long life with “my man” at her side.

It was evident, even then, that Miss Holiday was ill. I had known her casually over the years, and I was shocked at her physical weakness. Her rehearsal was desultory; her voice sounded tinny and trailed off; her body sagged tiredly. But I will not soon forget her metamorphosis at night. The lights went down, the musicians began to play and the narration began. Miss Holiday stepped from between the curtains, into the white spotlight awaiting her, wearing a white evening gown and white gardenias in her black hair. She was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling. And when the first section of narration ended, she sang — with strength undiminished — with all of the art that was hers. I was very moved. In the darkness, my face burned and my eyes [word missing in the liner notes … my guess is that the missing word is “teared”]. I recall only one other thing. I smiled.

Nat Hentoff wrote a review of the Holiday concert at Carnegie Hall in Downbeat magazine. It said, in part: The audience was hers from before she sang, greeting her … with heavy long applause. And at one time, the musicians too applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, undeniably the best and most honest jazz singer alive.

The recording of the concert quickly became one of my favorite records. I found Billie Holiday’s warm voice unique by being, simultaneously, worldly-wise and world-weary, bitter and sweet, with a woman’s maturity and a girl’s hopefulness.

My favorite singer on the records that my dad played when I was growing up was Frank Sinatra, so no surprise that I loved Billie Holiday as well; Sinatra used to say that the two singers who influenced him the most were Bing Crosby and Holiday.

One of Sinatra’s hallmarks was how he phrased lyrics. He said he learned how to do that by listening to Billie Holiday.

Holiday herself, in an often repeated self-assessment, is quoted in the book “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya” by Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro as saying, “I don't think I'm singing. I feel like I am playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, Louis Armstrong or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know."

Here’s how the jazz critic Gary Giddins once characterized the kind of singing Holiday performed during her later years, such as that night at Carnegie Hall: Holiday’s “later records are built entirely around the singer. The tempo is slower, the ambience more conversational. But her alterations remain provocative and full of surprise; her enunciation is, if anything, more compelling, the emotions urgent. …

“[W]hereas once she transcended silly lyrics with the intensity of her rhythmic and melodic skills, now she makes them work for her. Every stanza seems autobiographical.”

The aforementioned Lester Young was one of the best jazz saxophone players ever. He and Holiday were contemporaries, and for many years close friends. In Donald Clark’s “Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon,” Clark writes, “[A]s Franklin D. Roosevelt was the biggest man around, and as Lester was the president of the saxophone, Billie called him Prez for short. He thought that she must be the First Lady, and named her Lady Day. … [Both of] the nicknames stuck for the rest of their lives.”

In a cruel twist of fate, Young, an alcoholic, died just four months before Holiday did. He was only 49.

But before Prez and Lady Day both left us in 1959, they left us a remarkable gift. “At the end of 1957 came the last truly great experience we have of Lady Day on record,” writes Clark in his book. By record he doesn’t mean another vinyl LP, but a TV show. It was the “Sound of Jazz,” he writes, “sponsored by Timex, in the [CBS] series ‘Seven Lively Arts,’ produced by John Houseman.”

According to Wikipedia, “The one-hour program aired on Sunday, December 8, 1957, at 5 p.m. Eastern Time, live from CBS Studio 58, the Town Theater at 851 Ninth Ave. in New York City.”

Besides Lester Young, Holiday was accompanied by an all-star collection of musicians performing Holiday's classic blues number "Fine  and Mellow." Here’s Clark again: “The live broadcast was preceded by a recording of Lady’s voice, as the camera followed her walking in among the musicians, everybody smiling at each other, the room full of love: ‘… There’s two kinds of blues — there’s happy blues and sad blues … I don’t know, the blues is sort of a mixed up thing, you just have to feel it. …”

Again, Holiday reiterating how essential it is to her to “feel” what she is singing.

Clark continues, “[Doc] Cheatham [on trumpet] blew a muted obbligato during [Holiday’s] first chorus, then [Ben] Webster [on sax] soloed, followed by Prez. Both Lady and Prez sounded more tired than at rehearsal [three days before] but on the television recording you can see them watching each other, listening, smiling, and we are reminded that jazz is a live art. The performance ran for over eight minutes; there’s room for a [sax] solo from [Gerry] Mulligan, and [Roy] Eldridge’s [trumpet] solo is almost angry: ‘Hey, where have you guys been? Why can‘t we do this more often?’

“There were a few other, similar jazz programs on American television in that era, and that was it. All were memorable, but one short segment of [this one] is special, because of Lady, and because of the way she smiled to herself during Prez’s solo.” Critic Nat Hentoff later said of that solo, Young “blew the sparest, purest blues I had ever heard.”

Julia Blackburn, in her book “With Billie,” also focuses on Holiday’s singing of “Fine and Mellow” on this TV show. She writes that about two-thirds into the song “Billie no longer seems to be aware of her musicians — she is staring inwards, lost in some private world of thought and memory. It is as if she is not singing about a particular man she has loved, but about love itself and her own driving need to love and be loved, no matter what the consequences might be.”

At the end of the song, Blackburn says Holiday emerges from her private thoughts and “with solemn authority” explains that “ ‘Love is just like a faucet, it turns off and on’ and then she faces the camera a second time. She stares straight into the lens and with a wistful smile and a little shrug of her shoulders she explains, ‘Sometimes when you think it’s on, baby, it has turned off and gone.’ With that the story is told in its entirety.”

You can watch the performance in the video clip at the end of this essay, below.

Exactly 2 weeks before the 11th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s death, in July 1970, Audra Ann McDonald was born in Berlin, Germany. She was raised in Fresno, Calif., and attended the Juilliard School performance arts conservatory in the early 1990s.

In 1994, a year after graduating Juilliard, McDonald was cast as Carrie Pipperidge in a revival of “Carousel” at Lincoln Center. It was the re-staging of a production that had been done by Nicholas Hytner at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain two years earlier.

The show  received rave reviews and my wife and I, who lived in New York at the time, were very eager to see it. We did, and McDonald’s character, who marries the herring fisherman Mr. Snow, practically stole the show. McDonald won that year’s Tony Award for, essentially, best supporting actress. It was her first Tony. McDonald was 24.

Frank Rich, the former theater critic for The New York Times, wrote this in the liner notes to McDonald’s 1999 album “How Glory Goes”: “If the American musical didn’t already exist, it would have to be invented for Audra McDonald.

“The musical was dreamed up by artists eager to break free, to honor the old-world cultural past and yet transcend it, to create a new form as varied and exciting and of-the-moment as their new, melting-pot country. In McDonald, the form has found a singer whose voice, history and still-young career embody all its contradictory joys. She’s a product of Juilliard who is as comfortable on the legitimate stage and in a tiny nightclub as she is singing before an orchestra at Carnegie Hall.”

By the time Rich had written those words, McDonald had won two more Tonys — another one for best supporting actress in a musical (for “Ragtime”) and one for best supporting actress in a non-musical (for “Master Class”).

In 2004 she picked up another Tony for best supporting actress in a non-musical, this time for “A Raisin in the Sun.” Two years ago she won a Tony for best leading actress in a musical for “Porgy and Bess.”

And then, just a few weeks ago, McDonald picked up her record-breaking sixth Tony, this one for best lead actress in a play.

The Tony Awards have been given out since 1947. McDonald is the ONLY performer to win Tony Awards in both leading and supporting roles in both musicals and non-musicals.

I think the Tony she picked up a few weeks ago is for her best work yet.

McDonald won it for playing Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” by Lanie Robertson. The play was first performed in 1986, in Atlanta and then in New York, off-Broadway. For all intents and purposes it’s a one-woman show. In it McDonald, as Holiday, sings 15 songs.

I am a big fan of McDonald’s. Besides seeing her in several Broadway shows, I own several of her albums.

So here’s the thing: Usually, when McDonald sings, she sounds nothing like Billie Holiday. Not even close. As McDonald herself told Playbill, “When most people heard I was doing this, I’m sure a lot of them thought, ‘Well, what is she going to do? Sing it all an octave higher?’”

Magically — miraculously — McDonald pulls it off. I saw the show last week, and I’m still reeling, overwhelmed by McDonald’s talent and virtuosity. McDonald disappears and Holiday appears. I had always thought that Holiday's singing voice — in her later years especially — was so complicatedly multi-layered that it couldn't be duplicated. I was wrong.

I’m telling you folks, for 90 minutes last Tuesday night, on 50th Street, between Broadway and Eighth, I was in a nightclub being entertained by Billie Holiday. 

In the show, McDonald, who is almost 44 years old, plays a Holiday who is almost 44 years old.

The conceit of Robertson’s play is that instead of having a narrator tell Holiday’s story while she sings songs in between, as she did in her famous 1956 Carnegie Hall concert, in this nightclub appearance Holiday tells her story herself, between songs. It takes place four months before Holiday dies, and during this nightclub performance Holiday is clearly hyped up on booze and heroin.

The New York Times’ estimable reviewer Charles Isherwood, while loving McDonald’s performance, wrote that “The play’s conceit is, frankly, artificial and a bit hoary.” I don’t totally agree. While Robertson’s device is familiar, I found it just right for this show. Many of today’s theatergoers are not particularly familiar with Holiday’s  travails.

McDonald’s artistry in pulling this off defies description. The  show’s director, Lonny Price, is the person who suggested McDonald tackle this play. He’s worked with McDonald before, and he tells Playbill, “More than anything else, I feel Audra’s an actress. I know she has that incredible voice, but the reason I respond is what’s behind it. I’ve always thought her a great actress. We’d be talking and working, and she’d been studying Billie, then one day, honest to God, Billie showed up. It was magic.”

It really is incredible. During the show, McDonald, as Holiday, sings two songs I’ve heard literally hundreds of times, and in various versions. They are two of Holiday’s signature pieces, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.”

Just thinking about them now, a week later, still brings me a chill. I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m telling you — it was Billie Holiday singing those songs, hyped up on booze and drugs, yet reaching a clarity and the truth of those lyrics as I’d never heard before, filtered through a lifetime of her particular pain. She sang — with strength undiminished — with all of the art that was hers. I was very moved. In the darkness, my face burned and my eyes teared. I recall only one other thing. I smiled.

And this I know: If Billie Holiday is Lady Day, Audra McDonald is Lady Broadway.

Billie Holiday on CBS's "The Sound of Jazz," December 1957

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