The perfect blues performance?

I’m sure there are many fine blues performances. We’ve all seen some that stick with us as mind-bending or earth-shaking or goose-bump inducing.

Maybe there’s one or two that stand out. Someone you were with. Or a favorite artist. Something that lit you up (not something that you lit up!).

Well, since this is my blog, I thought I’d share one of mine. I’ve seen a lot of great live shows and heard a lot more recorded music.

But one of the performances that I find most moving, that catches the essence of the music, that pushes all my buttons, is a 1957 film clip from CBS’s The Sound of Jazz TV show, featuring the uniquely superb Billie Holiday, surrounded by some of the greatest jazz musician of the day. Or any day.

Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was a supremely talented singer, whose range encompassed pop, jazz and of course, the blues. And you could easily argue that it was the spirit of the blues that imbued her music with its essential power and elegance.

But it was her magical voice that always made me stop and listen. Her vocals were often filled with a kind of dangerous sensuality, threatening to reveal the depth and strength of her emotions.

Holiday recorded a wide range of music over the years, even as her voice, tragically reduced by drug and alcohol addiction, eventually couldn’t quite meet the musical demands placed on it.

But her performance of “Fine and Mellow” on CBS’s The Sound of Jazz program in 1957 still speaks to me, even though her voice was showing its age, even though she was only 42.

It’s probably the most memorable blues performance I’ve ever seen. It has everything: a singer in complete command, expressing herself not only with her voice, but with her eyes, her sly smile, and body language that suggests total immersion in and enjoyment of the moment. Plus a cadre of musicians who all know exactly what they’re doing: providing a musical pedestal to elevate Holiday’s intimate vocals.

The splendid musical group in the film includes: Roy Eldridge and Doc Cheatham, trumpet; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, tenor sax; Gerry Mulligan, baritone sax; Mal Waldron, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Milt Hinton, acoustic double bass; Osie Johnson, drums. 

Young, it should be noted, had a long personal and musical friendship with Holiday. He gave her the nickname “Lady Day,” but they reportedly had been estranged during this period. If you watch closely, though, you can see them make contact during his emotional blues solo. Both would die within two years.

And then there’s the song itself. “Fine and Mellow,” a lament about her man, was written by Holiday, who recorded it in 1939. It never became as popular as the B side of the record, “Strange Fruit,” a powerful, eloquent statement about lynchings.

But it’s one of my all-time favorites, overflowing with all the essential ingredients that make the blues the eloquent music that it is.

Please note:

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And now, the musical genius of “Fine and Mellow”:

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