When you listen to Billie Holiday, are you listening to jazz? On this particular record, her first recorded with Ray Ellis and his orchestra, it seems at first that you aren't. Ellis's orchestra is what you would expect from the label -- there's a full string section with ten violins, two violas, and two cellos, and there's even a harp. If you were to remove Ms. Holiday's vocals, the tracks left behind would certainly never be classified as jazz.
But with Lady Day? Irving Townsend addresses the question in his liner notes. "Is this jazz? And the answer must be: Yes. It is jazz because Billie Holiday sings jazz, no matter what the accompaniment is, no matter what the song is." And so I will defer to Mr. Townsend. Jazz it is.
But obviously it's decidedly not jazz, at least not if you listen in a vacuum. Maybe it's easy listening, maybe it's R&B or even neoclassical, but the music itself is not what we think of when we think of jazz. It simply isn't.
In today's world we often hear that hip-hop is not just music but a culture, something that influences and infuses fashion, language, sports, and more. Today's biggest starts aren't selling albums, they're selling a lifestyle that comes with a soundtrack, and that's what's going on with Billie Holiday.
She rose from the night clubs of Harlem to become one of the first star vocalists of the jazz era, so it would be wrong to classify her music -- and we could have a much longer conversation about our need to classify art -- as anything but jazz. Really, we should just listen and be thankful for the gift she's given us.
I'm a Fool to Want You
For Heaven's Sake
You Don't Know What Love Is
I Get Along without You Very Well
For All We Know
Violets for Your Furs
It's Easy to Remember
Glad to Be Unhappy
I'll Be Around
The End of a Love Affair