Recently, whilst searching for clips of pianist Jimmy Rowles on Youtube I came across the album "Songs and Conversations" by Billie Holiday. Sometime in 1955 Billie Holiday rehearsed some songs with Rowles and bass player Artie Shapiro in Shapiro's living room for an upcoming show. The rehearsal was recorded and the tape was left running as the musicians chatted about the arrangements and told stories, swapped anecdotes etc. The tapes were eventually released in 1973 as the album "Songs and Conversations.
The tapes provide a fascinating glimpse of the musicians at work, and in particular, they present a portrait of Billie Holiday very different from the tragic victim of jazz legend.
Billie had only just started working with Rowles again after working with him previously in the late forties. Rowles was a brilliant accompanist, and worked with most of the great female singers in the fifties and sixties including Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae. This is a clip of him accompanying Billie on My Man.
It is interesting to hear how he and Billie approach the music and figure out the arrangements together. It's notable that often Billie has a very clear idea of how she wants the song to begin and end, and Rowles normally respects this. In one exchange Billie jokingly accuses him of only doing this to make her feel important. Although Billie says this in a lighthearted way, it reveals Billie's probably justified sensitivity to being patronised by bandleaders and musicians, which I'm sure she had to battle throughout her career. In this case though, I think Rowles genuinely respects Billie's musical sense, and speaking from experience as a pianist and accompanist, if the singer has a strong idea about how an arrangement should go, it's often better to take the lead from them.
When Billie was recording her first sides for Brunswick in the mid-thirties, often the band would go into the studio without any set arrangements and would put them together on the spot (to save both time and money), so Billie was probably used to working in this way, and had tried and tested arrangements which she knew would work. This also reveals a very practical, professional approach to her craft, again at odds with the romantic myth of the intuitive artist.
Perhaps the most interesting section musically comes when they begin rehearsing "Everything Happens to Me". After Billie treats us to her unexpurgated version of the first line "I make a date for golf and you can bet your ass it rains!", the two begin to figure out an arrangement. Rowles wants to try an alternative set of chords. The normal chord sequence begins with a straightforward II-V-III-VI cadence. In the key of C this would be Dmin7 / G7 / | Emin7 / Amin7 with the melody note hitting a C natural over the Amin7 chord. However Rowles has a neat substitution which starts on the b5th of the scale and descends down chromatically. F#min7b5 / Fmin6 / | Emin7 / Ebmin7 /. The only problem is that this clashes with the melody, resulting in a C natural over the Ebmin7 chord. Rowles' solution is to move the melody note up a semitone to a Db.
It's testament to Billie's musicianship and musical ear that she grasps this straight away without any need for further explanation by Rowles. He plays it once and she sings it. It's also interesting that Billie wants to try the song with a different sentiment. She complains that most singers sing it too "pretty" and proceeds to sing it in a bitter tone, improvising words to convey the feeling she wants to project. This completely changes the song from a humorous, laconic lament by someone unlucky in love, to an angry cry against fate.
The Billie Holiday that comes across in these recordings is very different from the popular idea of her as a tragic artist. Here she is tough, funny and smart. She is self-deprecating when she tells the story of her disastrous audition for the Charlie Johnson band. However she also knows her worth as an artist, and is indignant that her previous record date was ruined by a bad producer and the band getting drunk.
She also shows very little sentimentality. When she complains to Rowles that Norman Granz (the dirty bum!) went ahead and released a version of What A Little Moonlight Can Do from the recent shambolic recording date after she begged him not to, Rowles, probably trying to bring the focus back to the rehearsal says "Now that's a great song". This was Billie's first big hit, and you might expect her to feel some attachment to this song, however she snaps back, quick as lightning "I hate that song!" Below I've posted the recording of each song followed by a transcription of the relevant conversations.
I Got it Bad
As usual Billie completely ignores the written melody on this tune. The original melody features a very unusual leap of a major 9th. Billie generally avoided these big melodic leaps and like her first inspiration Louis Armstrong, tended to use more repeated notes and smaller intervals; moulding the melody to fit her voice and her unique way of phrasing.
Jimmy : Let's hear the whole song once
Billie: No come on man!
[Billie sings it through and directs the ending]:
Billie : No I don’t want you stopping there, wait a minute, ‘I got it bad’…somebody play, ‘I got it bad’… and somebody answer then… Bop! ‘But that aint good’. You dig?
Jimmy : I got it, I love it.
Billie : See give one to the trumpet, one to the tenor, whatever we have, ‘I got it bad’ (scats) ‘I got it bad’ (scats) and then… Bop! ‘And that aint pretty.’ You know? Fly away. I’m gonna kill this cat, he didn’t give me an idea yet…sitting there letting me write my phrase, but you know what’s gonna happen, he’s gonna make it his way, real pretty for me, well I know what’s gonna happen. You let me sit up here looking like I’m a big shot, like I’m arranging… he’s just trying to make me feel good, he’s letting me be the arranger (laughs)
Jimmy: I wanna do what makes you comfortable you know?
Billie: Yeah, yeah. I dig it. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to be working with you again. Jesus Christ I’m not saying that you (inaudible) you know what I’ve been through…you know it’s been a long time…me and you.
Jimmy: It sure has.
Billie: I mean I’ve been with some pretty big shots during that time and man they don’t dig me at all probably, you know? They don’t understand me and I don’t understand them so we get nowhere. Like this last date…Norman was in Japan… got the biggest cats in the country….I aint even gonna tell you the cat’s name…he come, he taking care of the date …don’t worry about it…(inaudible) and Jesus Christ here’s Tony and Charlie Shavers, all the best musicians in the country. They said ‘man, we can’t read this shit’…so everybody winds up getting drunk…it’s my date you know… they fuck up the whole date…I was supposed to make at least eight sides, I only made three good ones…I made about three sides…
Jimmy: That’s not the way I dig it.
Billie: Jesus Christ nearly broke my heart, and I needed the loot…you know what I mean...at the time I was in kinda bad shape and I needed my loot! And these cats get up there, and Norman say you keep the studio and you sing as long as your throat will hold out… like he say tomorrow… now we may not get through eight tunes or ten tunes here to take up to the studio but Norman keeps that studio for as long as I think I can make it. That’s why I like working for the cat.
Billie: But these cats weren’t that drunk and when I seen Charlie Shavers drunk…now he was my hole card…when he fell, that was it, I just called the fucking thing off and told Norman please don’t release nothing… but he did, the dirty bum, he released What A Little Moonlight Can Do and…
Jimmy: Now there’s a great song!
Billie: I hate that song!
Billie : I’m telling you (Inaudible)…go up a little bit and come down a little bit ...(inaudible)..it’s not legit. Coz I’ve got a legitimate voice, this one’s a minor, on this a cat’s gotta know what he’s doing with Freddie Green (laughs)
Jimmy : Well what I’ll do… I’ll scribble in these changes doll and we’ll all be straight.
Billie: Aint my fault I just can’t go with...so low…that's why... you know I’ve been blessed, God you know I’ve been blessed really because, you know, when I first started you know, I got insulted on my first job and I didn’t get the job, Ed Smalls… and they had a cat in New York named Charlie Johnson, they was one of the biggest negro bands in the country at that time…you didn’t hear nothing about no Fletcher Henderson…Charlie Johnson and…that was before Don Redman and you know the McKinney Cotton Pickers…I was a little kid and I went there…I was about thirteen…and I’ll never forget Marie Johnson got me the audition…and she went to all this trouble you know to get me the audition (laughs) and I’m all ready to sing and this cat asks me, he says ‘What key are you singing in?’ I said ‘I don’t know man, you just play (laughs)… he shoot me out of there so fast it wasn’t even funny… and from then on I started remembering how to pitch my keys…to get...and I’d say what key is that in?...and he’d say Man I Love in G you know, and Billie’s Blues in Bb you know, and I started learning my keys…I didn’t know nothing about no keys you know… I’d just start singing you know?...and I’d get legitimate, and Ed Smalls was the biggest thing in Harlem man… ‘Oh what the hell do you care man you just play it’ I’ll sing it’… and he wouldn’t do it and chased me out (laughs). Marie Johnson was the star of the show and she went to all of this trouble to get me this audition…
[They play through Just Friends, Billie directs the intro and scats a bit]
Billie: How did that feel?
Everything Happens to Me
Billie: [singing solo] ‘I make a date for golf and you can bet your ass it rains’ (laughs)
[Billie sings a verse and a half after which Jimmy stops her and wants to try a different set of changes. The normal progression for the first two bars is just a simple: III VI II V progression - |Dmin7 / G7 / |Emin7 / Amin7 / |with the melody note on the Amin7 being a C natural. Jimmy does a nice, reharmonisation where he starts on the bV of the key (F#min7b5) and descends down : F#min7b5 / Fmin6 / | Emin /Ebmin7| The only thing is, this would involve an alteration of the melody note to a Db to fit the Ebmin chord. Jimmy sings it to Billie once and she immediately grasps what he’s doing]
[Billie continues singing but stops halfway through the bridge]
Billie: Hey baby you know how I want to do this? Everybody does it so pretty. I want to do it…
[Billie sings it again with a much harder edge, improvising her own words to express the feeling she wants to convey]
It's undeniable that Bille's voice was past it's best by this point of her career; the years of hard living having taken their toll. However, Billie's artistic sense was always sure, and her musicality and unique way of interpreting a melody and a lyric, remained intact to the end.