Lady Sings the Blues Screening at Central Library February 3

by David Ryan, Arts, Literature and Sports, Central Library

I grew up listening to rock and the occasional folk album. Perhaps this is why I’ve never felt completely comfortable exploring other types of music as an adult. The fact that I never learned to play an instrument, or read music, leaves me feeling even more lost. Jazz in particular has always left me intimidated. The dizzying improvisation, the voices, chords, and notes jumping from the top of the scale to the bottom is simply too much for me to comprehend let alone discuss intelligently. So, I’ve always steered myself aware from this quintessentially American art form. A composer friend recently told me that was nonsense. “You don’t have to understand the notes to feel the music,” he said.

I reluctantly took his advice and dove into the jazz end of my intimidation pool. I decided to begin with Billie Holiday. You can’t listen to any genre of music without hearing about the contributions of Lady Day. "God Bless the Child" and "I Wished on the Moon" have deservedly become classics. In fact, this was one of the few jazz names I knew. As a librarian I naturally researched Billie Holiday, or Lady Day to her fellow musicians, before listening to her music. What a beautiful yet tragic life! In reading about her, I discovered that she endured horrible abuse as a child, bigotry and drug abuse as an adult. But the music she left to future generations is heartbreaking one moment and teasingly joyful the next. Some music historians even credit her as an early civil rights activist because of her song "Strange Fruit." Unbelievably, she had no formal voice training, yet the work she left behind continues to touch countless lives and remains a standard for jazz singers.

During my research I came across a quote that seemed to speak to my embarrassment at having a poor musical background. Holiday once said, “If you find a tune that’s got something to do with you, you just feel it, and when you sing it, other people feel it, too.” Regardless of your musical education, you can’t help but be touched by the music and life of Billie Holiday.

In the end, unfortunately, the beautiful notes were not loud enough to drown out the dissonance of her life. She died from drug abuse complications, and, I would argue, a cruel world.

Please join us Sunday, February 3, 2:30 p.m., at the Central Library/Story Castle for a showing of Lady Sings the Blues.