An Afternoon with Miles Davis: Observations On Billie Holiday
by Nat Hentoff The Jazz Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 1958) (posted by http://jazzstudiesonline.org/ )
Miles lives in a relatively new building on Tenth Avenue near 57th Street. The largest area in his apartment is the living room. Like the other rooms, it is uncluttered. The furnishings have been carefully selected and are spare. Miles has a particular liking for “good wood” and explains thereby why his Down Beat plaques—and even his Four Roses Award from the Randall’s Island “festival”—are all displayed. He has a good piano and an adequate non-stereo record player.
The idea of the afternoon—the first of a series of observations by Miles to be printed at regular intervals in this monthly—was to play a variety of recordings for him and transcribe his reactions. This was not a blindfold test, for while I find those adventures in skeet shooting entertaining, I doubt if they serve much purpose except transitory titillation.
First was Billie Holiday’s 1937 / Must Have That Man with Wilson, Clayton, Goodman, Young , Green, Page and Jo Jones. “I love the way Billie sings,” Miles began. “She sings like Lester Young and Louis Armstrong play, but I don’t like all that’s going on behind her. All she needed was Lester and the rhythm. The piano was ad libbing while she was singing, which leads to conflict, and the guitar was too loud and had too much accent on every beat.”
Miles was asked whether he agreed with most of the writers on jazz that the Billie of 20 years ago was the “best” Billie and that she is now in decline. “I ‘d rather hear her now. She’s become much more mature.
Sometimes you can sing words every night for five years, and all of a sudden it dawns on you what the song means. I played My Funny Valentine for a long time—and didn’t like it—and all of a sudden it meant something. So with Billie, you know she’s not thinking now what she was in 1937, and she’s probably learned more about different things. And she still has control, probably more control now than then. No , I don’t think she’s in a decline.
” What I like about Billie is that she sings it just the way she hears it and that’s usually the way best suited for her. She has more feeling than Ella and more experience in living a certain way than Ella . Billie’s pretty wild, you know.
“She sings way behind the beat and then she brings it up—hitting right on the beat. You can play behind the beat, but every once in a while you have to cut into the rhythm section on the beat and that keeps everybody together. Sinatra does it by accenting a word. A lot of singers try to sing like Billie, but just the act of playing behind the beat doesn’t make it sound soulful.View Video
A Rarely Heard Interview With Billie Holiday
The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) has posted a fascinating 12-minute radio interview from Toronto in 1952 on its site. Despite some lame questions, Billie acquits herself as good-natured and articulate.
-Michael CuscunaRead More
A Time Capsule Of History
Billie Holiday’s version of “Fine And Mellow” from “The Sound Of Jazz” is one of the highlights of that amazing 1957 CBS television show. The all-star band includes three tenor giants: Ben Webster, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. The camera wisely moves to Billie’s face for much of Lester’s solo.View Video