Backstage With Billie Holiday

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By John Leland ~ NYT

Billie Holiday was a great American storyteller and a great American story. Her working materials were simple pop songs and standards — rarely blues — but her medium was her body itself: her voice, her back story. The past imprinted its lines on her skin; the future seemed to be running out.

Few voices in America have announced themselves as unmistakably as hers, and few have carried as fully formed a narrative load. In April 1957, the freelance photographer Jerry Dantzic, working for Holiday’s record company, Decca, drew the assignment of finding a new chapter in her story during an Easter Week engagement at the Sugar Hill club in Newark. Holiday was 42 at the time and had been singing professionally for about 27 years, coming off a successful concert at Carnegie Hall and a new marriage to Louis McKay, with whom she shared a heroin habit.

Most of Mr. Dantzic’s images were never published until his son Grayson compiled them in “Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill,” which adds a quiet new dimension to the story we thought we knew about Holiday.

Newark in the late 1950s was a thriving jazz hub, but more than that, it was a place where she could work – she had been barred from singing in New York nightclubs after a 1947 drug conviction. For Mr. Dantzic, who died in 2006, Newark was a place to capture her away from the pressures of her home city, including the unsparing scrutiny from law enforcement. Holiday had opened much of her life to the public with her lurid autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” which came out the previous year. With Mr. Dantzic, she revealed homier sides of her life, which needed no explanations and invited no judgments: at home with her husband or her dog, or visiting her co-author, Bill Dufty, and his son, Bevan, her godchild. In these images and in Mr. Dantzic’s performance shots, she is not the tragic torch singer of myth but a middle-aged woman finding simple comforts from the maelstrom, no longer as sharp in her voice but undiminished in her ability to command a stage.

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