Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Listen Magazine: 'But Beautiful' A life with Billie Holiday By Lara Downes

A Billie Holiday Songbook
Lara Downes

Lara Downes

Listen Magazine

Steinway & Sons

Fall 2015

By Lara Downes

EVERY SATURDAY MORNING when I was a little girl, my sisters and I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for what we called "Saturday Classes": piano lessons, theory, music history - serious classical music training for serious little musicians.  Saturday afternoons, when we got home, we had a ritual. We'd get out our "dress-up" from the vintage steamer trunk that housed a collection of my mother's 1960s party dresses and my grandmother's furs, go through my parents' record collection - The Beatles, Sinatra, Charles Aznavour, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday - and dance around the living room.  Those Billie Holiday records stopped me in my tracks.  I was enthralled by her dark eyes shaded by the white gardenia, by her world-worn voice, and by what I knew, even then, to be the totally, startlingly distinctive qualities of mood and phrasing, line and color that she brought to even the simplest tune.

In my diary, the year I was eight, I made a careful list, in perfect cursive, of all my favorite things.  My favorite song: Billie Holiday, "I Cover the Waterfront."  Such a sad song, about watching and waiting for a love that's gone.  That year was the last year of my father's long, slow, dying.  And then he was gone, and I spent foggy afternoons at our dining room window, looking out over the San Francisco Bay, waiting for the sadness to lift.  I pulled out the old records at night.  I cover the waterfront, Billie sang, I'm watching the sea / Will the one I love be coming back to me?

My father was born in Harlem, and he grew up just steps from the legendary clubs where jazz blossomed in its golden age.  The Apollo, Lenox Lounge, Minton's: all places Billie Holiday sang during the years of his childhood.  He loved jazz, and in my earliest memories he is listening to records, the long length of him stretched out in the Eames chair in our living room - Billie Holiday, Ellington, Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Glenn Gould's Bach, which is its own kind of bebop.

In the end, he left us the memories and the records.

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