The Troy Street Observer

Apr 20, 1959: Lady Day’s Last Visit

Photo of Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, 1958

Billie Holiday opened her last engagement in Boston on April 20, 1959, at  Storyville. For Holiday, who had not worked in Boston for three-and-a-half years, it was a triumphant return.

I believe Holiday first came to the Hub in August 1937 with Basie’s band, singing at the Ritz Roof. She made history here in March 1938 when she joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra at the Roseland-State Ballroom. The 1940s are dotted with Holiday appearances, but Boston was really reintroduced to her in February 1951, during a ten-day engagement at the Latin Quarter.

Boston in 1951 had the Hi-Hat and Storyville competing for jazz talent. Holiday, who had lost her cabaret card, could not work in the New York clubs, so the Boston situation was to her advantage—between 1951 and 1955, she worked week-long engagements at Storyville five times and at the Hi-Hat four. The last was in October 1955, and although she sang at the North Shore Jazz Festival in Lynn in 1957, she wasn’t seen in Boston again until April 1959. On this visit, her accompanist, Mal Waldron, was joined by bassist Champ Jones and drummer Roy Haynes.

Holiday had turned 44 on April 7, and it was clear to everyone who knew her that she was seriously ill. (John Chilton’s biography, Billie’s Blues: The Billie Holiday Story, 1933-1959 describes Holiday’s life at this time.) Still, she rallied and put on a stunning performance in Boston. George Wein had been on the road and only caught the last day of Holiday’s appearance, a Sunday, when the club had a matinee as well as two evening shows. Wein told Chilton he heard Billie sing five sets that day, and he was “mesmerized.” And he wasn’t alone.

John McLellan titled his April 27 Traveler column “Billie Holiday Can Teach ‘Em.” McLellan was always hard on singers, and in this edition of “The Jazz Scene,” he proposed that all the finger-snapping hipsters be required to attend classes taught by Ms. Holiday. Why? “They just don’t swing. Billie Holiday does.”

McLellan noted Holiday sang longer and better sets than she did on her last visit, when if you arrived 15 minutes late, the set was already over. She sang songs old and new: “I Wished on the Moon,” “Miss Brown to You,” “God Bless the Child,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” and “You’ve Changed,” from her most recent LP, Lady in Satin.

McLellan marveled at her singing: “The lightness and ease of the young girl are gone. The voice now cuts through like a knife. But there is a mature beauty in her singing…As Nat Hentoff once wrote, other singers sing about emotion. Billie actually projects the emotion itself. It is this sound in her music that is perhaps most important in making Billie Holiday a true jazz singer. Even more than the craft of swinging, which she does so effortlessly.”

Holiday had a great week, and Wein wanted her for Newport. But there were no more great weeks. Her health again began to fail and she was hospitalized at the end of May. There she suffered humiliations and outrages almost beyond understanding. Maybe there just wasn’t enough help available to save her. Billie Holiday died on July 17, 1959, three months after her last triumph as an artist, on Huntington Avenue in Boston. It’s an historic spot worthy of a brass plaque on the wall.

The late Mel Levine was a longtime presence on the Boston jazz scene. His son Oren found some photos Mel took of Holiday at Storyville in 1959, and he posted them here.

“Bittersweet” describes many of Billie’s songs. Here is “I’m a Fool to Want You,” from that 1958 studio recording, Lady in Satin. Urbie Green’s on the trombone.

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