Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth

We’ve all heard her, but do any of us really know her? Published last year in celebration of the centenary of Billie Holiday’s birth, John Szwed’s new biography of the sultry singer brings us as close to her soul as we’re likely to get. Aptly titled Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, the book judiciously emphasizes her artistry over the more sensational aspects of her life. A professor of music and director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University in New York City, Szwed focused his intellectual microscope on Billie’s soaring music–her public, professional persona–rather than on her personal life. The professor’s writing style is more conversational than professorial, which makes this book easily readable and sometimes a sheer joy. Born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore in 1915, Holiday has been the subject of more than a half-dozen biographies and one controversial autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, which was turned into a major motion picture in 1972 starring Diana Ross in the title role. In his effort to dispel the “myth” of Billie’s life, Szwed explores the singer’s motivation to pen the salacious tell-all with her ghostwriter, Bill Dufty, a union activist and reporter for the New York Post. While a departure from the music, this tangent takes us behind the scenes of publishing and newspapering, revealing some uncomfortable truths about
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Russ Tarby is based in Syracuse NY and has written about jazz for The Syncopated Times, The Syracuse New Times, The Jazz Appreciation Society of Syracuse (JASS) JazzFax Newsletter, and several other publications.

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