Jazz music has always existed as a voice for black musicians and audiences. The sounds and rhythms are extremely unique and colorful. It certainly changed America in the 1920’s with the swing movement and it put jazz on the map. During this time many white people started to be influenced by this infectious music, and started to enjoy it. Many white people also discriminated against blacks and treated them as less than equal. A goal for an artist named Billie Holiday was to make America listen to the cries of a black man, a black man who was just lynched.
Jazz music had to be recognized with its roots. Billie Holiday believed Jazz music had to defend the black people. No better way of being heard than through the voice of Holiday. She attempted to fight for black rights through her song “ strange fruit”, a political song that struck a chord for many Americans. Her original name was Eleanor Fagan, born April 7, 1915. Billy Holiday was an American jazz singer, one of the greatest from the 1930s to the 1950s. Also known as “Lady Day, Holiday first acquired a taste of music listening to her father, who was a traveling musician.
She was fortunate not to be deprived of music during the popular jazz age of the 1920’s. At the young age of 15 she started listening to jazz. She listened to the popular recordings of trumpet player Louis Armstrong and singer Bessie Smith . She decided to sing and she made her professional singing debut in 1931 at a small Harlem nightclub. She then continued to record for the first time only two years later. The jazz world did not recognize her music until 1935. She toured briefly with the Count Basie and Artie Shaw orchestras before becoming a big nightclub solo attraction in 1940.
Her vocal style is considered to be one of the most original ever achieved; she sang with unique personality and distinguished herself as a professional artist. She never had technical training, and she was still able to create a beautiful and warm round vocal effect. Her vintage years were around 1936-43, when her professional and private relationship with the saxophonist Lester Young started. The team recorded some of the best musical examples of interplay between a vocal and instrumental line. Around her time jazz was being listened to by many people.
Many white people were swinging to the beats of Duke Elington, who was probably one of the most famous swing composers. A large majority of the white society was definitely wrapped up in the new phenomenon of jazz. What’s so amazing is that many whites were racist towards the composers of the music they enjoyed. The roots of jazz come from Africa, and it is derived from African rhythms and the blues. During the birth of jazz, the political situation for blacks in America was horrible. Black’s were oppressed and discriminated by whites.
They were hated in society, and during this time many blacks were being lynched in the South. I guess one could say that Jazz was an outlet for the blacks. It was their anthem of pride, and their creation to rightfully claim in a society that believed blacks shouldn’t have rights. If white people in society were going to kill blacks simply because they were black, but at the same time enjoy their music, then wasn’t this a contradiction? Billie Holiday was an artist who made this point clear. She saw it as her duty to spread the truth about the horrors of black oppression.
If the people were going to listen and enjoy black music, then they would also have to know about the violence and hate black people lived with in the South. At the height of her career the infamous song she sang was “strange fruit”, which was a highly charged political song. The song was about blacks being lynched in the south; a horrible and abhorrent act. Holiday was one of the first black musicians with the guts to release such an important political message in a song. A schoolteacher named Lewis Allan had written it for her. He was able to create a vision of how mobs of white men killed black men by hanging them from trees.
His work wouldn’t have had half the impact if Holiday didn’t make it her own. Many people objected to the song. It was unlike any other popular song, but it was a huge hit. Here was a song that opened the doors for the Civil Rights movement. There was no better way for the people to experience the pain than through her voice. There was no better way at the time to reach the people of America than through a star who was loved, admired and black. There was another star who was admired loved, admired and black, and his name was Louis Armstrong. Born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901, Louis Satchmo” Armstrong was a victim of poverty and discrimination. At the age of eleven, Armstrong began to develop an interest in music, harmonizing on street corners and playing a toy horn. He was in and out of the home throughout his teenage years and was taken under the wing of Peter Davis, who taught him music. Under Davis’s teaching, Armstrong joined a band, and his talent blossomed. He left the Waif’s Home in 1914, and began to play the cornet all around New Orleans. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Armstrong maintained one of the most grueling continual tours of all time.
He began playing with the large bands that were popular at the time. His popularity and fame though, favored many white people in America With his increasing fame came the criticism of a black community that felt he was not living up to the responsibilities of the times. The late fifties brought with them the civil rights movement, and many blacks saw Armstrong as an “uncle tom,” playing for primarily white audiences around the world. Though he stated that these claims were not true, Armstrong was then in his sixties and primarily concerned with continuing to travel and perform.
He didn’t want to get involved with the Civil Rights issues like Holiday started to do. He probably felt that trying to protect blacks would take away from his fame and popularity. Holiday was really one of the few black musicians who started very early with the rallying cries for the Civil Rights movement; a change for the way black people were treated. In the Nineteen-Forties, Holiday started using the illegal drug heroin. Soon her body needed more and more of the drug. It began to affect her health. In Nineteen-Forty-Seven, Billie Holiday was arrested for possessing illegal drugs.
She was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in prison. When she was released, New York City officials refused to give her a document that permitted her to work in any place that served alcoholic drinks. This meant Holiday no longer could sing in nightclubs and jazz clubs. She could sing only in theaters and concert halls. Ten days after her release from jail, she performed at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall. People filled the place to hear her sing. One of the songs she sang that night was “Strange Fruit”. ” Her last years were a real struggle against the destructive drug heroin.
It eventually took her life; but her later recordings show that, although her voice was ravaged, her technique was still amazing. She died young, but not before leaving a serious scar in the music world and in the United States. Her song was not pretty, and it wasn’t supposed to be. The song was meant to be raw and powerful, which it was for its time. She distinguished herself as one of the most famous black musicians to sing about what she thought was most important, not only for herself and for her people, but also for what the music was about.