Jazz warms my soul. It’s the sound of horns, mingled with brushed snares and sparse keys that strike a chord with me, bring me to an everlasting ease. I appreciate the way the same standard can be interpreted by the famed and by the lesser known, phrased and formed to fit the voices and styles of the musicians. I love the flexibility, the innate improvisation, the freedom and spontaneity. And while there is jazz that goes over my head, music that feels more speedy than soothing, I look to the genre as a pick-me-up more often than not.
In thinking about vocal jazz, I’m continually drawn to two legends: Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. They are perhaps the most emblematic singers of the genre, voices that most have heard at some point or another. Yet these women, with the sweetest of tones, led deeply challenging lives. Both grew up impoverished in a racially divided society. They lived in broken households, singing to self-soothe through their struggles.
They still play in dim-lit coffee shops, voices familiar and familial to all. Singing about lovers and the lovely aspects of life, these women thrived musically and lyrically despite their troubled circumstances. And they sang in such a way that one could easily overlook the melancholy underlying their soulful timbres.
I listened to Billie in high school, looking to imitate her phrasing, her manipulation of notes and the way she made music her own. Learning of her troubled past — her life as a prostitute, her experiences with sexual assault and her fatal battle with a heroin addiction — gave her music a new sense of depth and darkness for me. Her voice, caramelized and confident, so perfectly complemented by trumpets and keys, is actually filled to the brim with despair.
Billie performed some songs that seemed so innocuous, so lyrically saccharine; yet, her interpretations added an unshakable layer of gloom. “Lover Man” is one of those; it’s a song that merely discusses the desire to be loved and cared for. The lyric, “Got a moon above me / but no one to love me” is poetic, but the sentiment is common. Yet, when Billie sings it, it’s as though we feel her absence and emptiness, her tumultuous life soaking through every note and beat. As she searches for love, we too search for ourselves in her syrupy voice.
Ella is a more complicated figure. She was continually critiqued for her lack of emotionality, but her vocal prowess still reached and resonated with communities everywhere. Ella’s voice was pure and precise. She moved through her range with ease, surpassing anyone and everyone with her ability to scat and imitate instruments. And even when she slowed things down on tracks like “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” her voice was still so pleasant to listen to. It was, and is, enjoyable for everyone, for any moment.
Listening to Ella next to Billie, there are obvious differences. While Billie’s voice gushes with emotion, Ella’s feels lighter. As Francis Davis of the New York Times wrote, “Compared with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald has always sounded girlish and untroubled, even in old age. Her renditions of songs reveal nothing about herself, except the obvious joy she takes in singing.” Davis titled his 1994 piece on the two singers, “One Scats, the Other Doesn’t,” a simplistic sentence meant to highlight the similarities between these singers. Ella, too, experienced hardship, in the form of multiple marital dissolutions and health issues later in life. Far less is known about Ella’s difficulties, but biographers have noted that music was her way of communicating with the world, her coping mechanism that brought her the most joy and exhilaration. Like Billie, singing provided a sense of solace for Ella.
Behind the sweetness of sound often lies a deep-seated melancholy, one that can be suppressed, as in the case of Ella Fitzgerald, or one that oozes despite the lyrics, as in the voice of Billie Holiday. Their experiences with adversity will continue to influence the way I listen to them and the music they left behind. They are more than the voices that play over Starbucks’ speakers, blending with the sound of chatter. They are icons, important not only for the way they influenced and altered jazz as a genre, but also for their abilities to create such sophisticated, perfumed melodies in the midst of turmoil.
Anita Alur is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Millenial Musings appears every other Wednesday this semester.