Meeting Billie Holiday
During my next semester at Temple University in Philadelphia, 1955, I learned that WFLN was looking for announcers and decided to audition. Yes, the WFLN. Which I had often heard as a student at Swarthmore. After all, I knew something about classical music, knew fairly well how to pronounce a few languages or to sound as if I did. Moreover I had a pleasant, resonant microphone-ready, normally- required speaking voice…...
The script contained all sorts of foreign words and phrases, many of which I knew. Moreover my training as an actor helped me understand how to read the whole thing as if it were not just a collection of verbal hurdles. Clearly I had left an impression, because that same day I was asked if I knew anything about jazz? Of course I did. I didn’t explain why: I’d listened to Morrison Crowley hosting the WFLN jazz show when I was at Swarthmore. I answered “yes.” .
Not long thereafter I got the call. A shift, Monday through Friday from 10 am to 2 pm plus the two--hour Saturday “Concert of American Jazz.” Where had Crowley gone? Why? No idea. I didn’t ask…..
……..Meanwhile I reveled in how many jazz LPs had already accumulated in the library. The mid-50s, as it turned out, were great years for jazz recordings. By the early 50s long-playing records, LPs, made it possible to re-issue and improve what previously had often sounded like scratchy 78s. An LP turned at 33 & 1/3 revolutions per minute. 78s were at 78 rpms. 78’s could at the most contain about five minutes per side. LPS could hold around 20. This meant that jazz musicians could stretch out their ideas to whatever length they wanted, as they had always done live when not compelled to think about doing their best under 78 rpm constraints. The mid-50s saw the birth of jam session recordings, of audio visits to live concerts, as far back as Carnegie Hall concerts of the 1930s. And the brilliant informative liner notes were a godsend to someone like me, who, actually, had to learn about the artists to be able to share the information with listeners…...
I pored over the information in Barry Ulanov’s History of Jazz in America so much so that that the weekly, two -hour program, Concert of American Jazz, became as much a focus of my time and energy as all the rest of the hours combined, even though I didn’t like the title I’d inherited. After all, there were many great recordings by artists from other countries such as Django Reinhardt and a French pianist newly arrived in the U.S. to settle in Philadelphia, Bernard Peiffer whom I interviewed. There were Swedish musicians, English musicians, Australian musicians, Cuban musicians……
Meeting Billie Holiday
Mike O’Donnell then asked me if I knew that Billie Holiday was performing in town. I didn’t. Nor did I know much about her. “She’s a singer, right?” I asked Mike.
So I started studying about her career. Nothing that I read said much about her personal devils.
I called Jack Fields, the owner of the Blue Note, and we set up an interview. I took the WFLN portable reel-to-reel tape deck.
The Blue Note was on Ridge Avenue, right in the center of a black ghetto. Why was such a club in such a run-down neighborhood instead of someplace more elegant, befitting the marvels and joys of jazz.? The place smelled of dead cigarettes, spilled beer and sour wine.
Jack took me to a small dressing room back of tiny stage where Ray Bryant was playing the piano. And Jack introduced me to a haggard older lady with all of her 40 years, looking like a heavy load. She smiled sweetly.
Gracious and charming, gentle and kind, sounding as vulnerable and sweet as the way she sang, she told me how much she admired the music of Debussy and Ravel, how she’d always loved classical music. Yeah. Right. Trying my damnedest to convince those anti-jazz listeners that they were wrong to look down their noses at such great music.
After what seemed like a long and wonderful time talking, I felt we had had good talk and stopped the tape.
“That was really interesting,” Billie said. “Can we listen to some of it?”
“Sure,” I said, thrilled that she was impressed.
I re-wound the tape and started it. Silence. There was nothing on it. I don’t know what happened, Probably in my nervous eagerness, I’d forgotten to push the right buttons.
“Oh, honey, that’s too bad,” she sighed. “I guess we’ll just have to do it over.”
More graciousness warmed that tiny room. I didn’t realize yet that re-takes were a part of her everyday life.
Ray Bryant was playing again: “Cubano Chant,” one of his more famous tunes. Jack left the room to ask him to hold off until after the interview. I’d already started, not smart enough to wait.
Nor was I relaxed enough or experienced enough to go over the same questions again. Maybe I thought she’d be bored. Maybe, I thought, what the hell, we already talked about Debussy and Ravel and we should explore other subjects.
So, having read enough about her to know her background, we talked about her career.
It did record. And I left Lady, joyous that I had met her. A life-long fan, long after she found eternal peace. It was love. It still is.
Since then I’ve broadcast my edited version of that tape over and over again on jazz programs in New York, Albuquerque, Milwaukee. And, sometimes on TV documentaries about her, I hear the exact same words and inflections I know so well and recognize that someone copied my interview and is re-using it. That’s fine. I don’t own Billie. She belongs to all of us.
---Selected excerpts from “Station Breaks by Gordon Spencer.”