Billie Holiday, at Her Peak…and After

In 1948, Billie Holiday was at her peak, musically and physically. Ironically, her splendid condition was largely due to her having spent most of the previous year in a federal reformatory, serving time for the possession of narcotics. Unable, while incarcerated, to have access to drugs or alcohol, she had lost her previous pudginess and became a strikingly beautiful women. Her incomparable voice, instead of having declined from lack of use, had retained its rich but bittersweet tone. If anything, it had become more wrenching than ever.

Unable to work nightclubs in New York City because of police restrictions on performers with criminal records, she marked time until some well-financed fans arranged a concert for her in Carnegie Hall (which was not subject to nightclub limitations). Her appearance was a sold-out triumph.

Eventually, she was able to resume club dates. It was at one of them that I took a photograph often cited as the most widely used picture ever taken of a jazz person. Whether or not so, I believe it captured the beauty of her face and the anguish of her voice.

Regrettably, Billie regressed. The last time I planned to see her, the word on The Street was that, on jobs, she often didn’t show on time, if at all. Hopefully, I nonetheless went to catch her current act. Sure enough, she wasn’t at the microphone when she should have been. The audience waited...and waited. Playing a hunch, I went backstage and found her, half dressed, sitting on the edge of a dressing room cot, pretty much “out of it.”

I helped her finish dressing, then led her to the microphone. She looked horrible. She sounded worse. I replaced my notebook in my pocket, put a lens cap on my camera, and walked away, choosing to remember this remarkable woman as she once was.