“Give me a song I can feel and it’s never work” – Billie Holiday.
Joe Bonamassa has an interesting relationship to jazz just as Billie Holiday has a complicated relationship with the blues. Of course, Joe Bonamassa is a bluesman. In my opinion, he’s the greatest blues-rock musician playing right now. And while Joe has always been a bluesman, his excursions have gone even deeper into the genre than ever over the past year. After releasing his stunning studio set of virtually all original material (excepting one short Jimi Hendrix instrumental) Different Shades of Blue last year, Bonamassa tried something new in the live arena. Joe Bonamassa assembled a fantastic new live band and put together a tribute show to two of the greatest bluesmen who have ever lived, the electric Chicago bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Well, the set was spectacular and featured some amazing tunes, including “Tiger In Your Tank,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” “You Shook Me,” “Spoonful,” and “Killing Floor.” The show took place at the drop-dead gorgeous Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, and resulted in a phenomenal live album released just this year. If you haven’t heard it yet, you should go give it a listen. Like immediately. In fact, everything about the project was so great, that Joe decided to take another tribute show on the road this year; this time it was to the three kings of the blues. This leaves little room for doubt that Joe Bonamassa is all about the classic blues.
But is Joe Bonamassa also a jazzman? Well, the truth is, Joe’s virtuosic guitar artistry crosses all genre barriers. He can play anything: rock, blues, country, soul, and, yes, jazz. If you’ve ever heard his groove-tastic side project, Rock Candy Funk Party, you already know the man can play smoldering jazz-funk solos. Another project Joe has going on, his awesome collaborations with blues chanteuse Beth Hart, also incorporates elements of jazz and digs quite a bit into the classic jazz repertoire.
Billie Holiday, on the other hand, is generally known now as a jazz singer, although she’s often been called a blues singer too. There’s good reason for the confusion. Jazz, quite frankly, is musically based on the blues. And in the early days of the twentieth century, the boundaries between the two genres were not so distinct. So it’s not so surprising that early jazz pioneers like Louis Armstrong could play in both musical idioms. And Billie Holiday, a master and innovator of song and vocal technique, with her distinct phrasing, pitch-control, and volume changes, her howls and her growls, both her bitterness and sweetness, could handle a blues as deftly and creatively as she could the finest jazz songs.
Which brings us to “Strange Fruit” – this week’s Joe Bonamassa video of the week. “Strange Fruit” has long been considered one of Billie Holiday’s signature, greatest, and most moving songs; it also happens to be considered a blues tune. The tune is the very definition of haunting: a riveting, almost horrifying description of American racism and lynching. In the hands of a lesser singer, it could still move a person to tears. In the hands of Billie Holiday, it became one of the finest works of art of the 20th century.
Does that make Billie Holiday one of the best blues singers of the 20th century? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. What does absolutely matter is that at some point, genre descriptions are helpful but superfluous. Sometimes an artist is so skilled, so versatile, so in a class of their own, that putting a genre label on them is almost limiting. So is Billie Holiday a blues singer? Sure. Is Joe Bonamassa a jazzman? Why not? At the end of the day, what really matters is the incredible body of work that the artists leave in their wake. The work we never forget. The work that moves our souls.
Interested in knowing more about Billie Holiday? Here are some truly fascinating facts about one of the greatest singers of any era:
– Billie Holiday was strongly inspired by both Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Jazz and blues!
– Billie Holiday did not think she was a good singer. It’s amazing to think that she could be so full of self doubt given the brilliance of her instrument and her way of using it. But people can be their own worst critic and it seems that she was blind to her uncanny, innate abilities with music and song.
– Sometimes, Billie Holiday would buy drinks for her fans. Some of them could hardly afford to see her perform, and were much obliged for the drink.
– Billie Holiday carried a razor blade with her everywhere she went. Don’t mess.
– Billie Holiday never came in at number one on the Down Beat poll of the best jazz singers in her day, shocking considering her status as possibly the greatest jazz singer of all time now.
– Vibrato was an incredibly important vocal technique for Billie Holiday, as it was for leading jazzman Louis Armstrong. On the concept of vibrato, Billie once said, “When I got into show business you had to have the shake. If you didn’t, you were dead… You have to use it sparingly. You know, the hard thing is not to do that shake.” Your shake sounds perfect to me Billie!
– Billie Holiday insisted that the way she got into singing was an accident. When she was only fifteen years old, Billie and her struggling mother faced possible eviction and homelessness. In a desperate effort to forestall this, Holiday auditioned at a nightclub but not to be a singer – rather, to be a dancer. It did not go well and it seemed she was out of luck, when suddenly the nightclub offered her a shot as a singer. She passed with flying colors and was immediately successful. Her audiences would cry at the emotional power of her singing and throw money at her in response to her tremendous abilities. And now, we will never forget her.
– Brian R.