Billie Holiday lived long enough to make a handful of television appearances in the late 1950s. She was no longer in peak form, but these performances reveal her passion for the music she sang…and the bond she shared with musicians she admired.
There is a marvelous rendition of “I Surrender Dear” led by underappreciated guitarist Mary Osborne on YouTube, from a 1958 show called Jazz Party. Despite the iffy quality of the kinescope, the music swings and no one is enjoying it more than Holiday, who is revealed part-way through the song, seated on a stool right next to Osborne. First she nods in time to the uptempo chorus Osborne is playing; then you can actually see her face come alive. That’s what music can do.
Billie’s most famous appearance was on a CBS network special called The Sound of Jazz, which aired on Sunday, December 8, 1957. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff helped to put the all-star program together and had to use all his powers of persuasion to get the ailing Holiday to show up. Her friend Lester Young, whom she nicknamed “Prez,” was equally fragile but participated in an unforgettable rendition of Billie’s song “Fine and Mellow,” which she introduced on disc in 1939. (The flip side was “Strange Fruit.”)
Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster take solo choruses. Then, in Hentoff’s words, “Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.”
No histrionics or melodrama could equal the deep feeling for music that we see in these all-too-brief appearances. Thank goodness someone committed these live performances to film.
For the record, the other musicians on the date are Vic Dickenson on trombone, Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone, Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Doc Cheatham on trumpet, Danny Barker on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass, Mal Waldron on piano and Osie Johnson on drums.