The list of jazz icons — those compelling figures whose star-crossed lives juxtapose innovative artistic brilliance against hazardous personal excesses — has no entry more memorable than singer Billie Holiday.
She is for many the paradigm of jazz singing, and continues to be one of the lasting figures of American pop and jazz music.
Her influence has been, for the most part, subtle and indirect. Holiday was not a scat singer in the style of Ella Fitzgerald; she was not a vocal athlete like Sarah Vaughan. Her metier was musical storytelling enhanced by a shadowy framework of the blues.
Aspects of Holiday can be found in many singers — the phrasing of Frank Sinatra, the simmering, laid-back sound of Cassandra Wilson, the singularity of Abbey Lincoln, Norah Jones, Patricia Barber and Andy Bey, the fearlessness of Sheila Jordan, the conversational manner of Karrin Allyson, the balladry of Shirley Horn, the layered musicality of San Francisco singers such as Madeline Eastman and Jackie Allen.
Some of her classics are "Miss Brown to You" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," along with the seminal "Strange Fruit," "God Bless the Child," "Don't Explain," "Good Morning, Heartache," "Body and Soul" and "But Not for Me."
One of her more lasting songs, a harrowing description of a lynching in the South, "Strange Fruit" offered imagery — "Black body swinging in the Southern breeze . . ." — that was disturbingly explicit, especially at a time when segregation still existed and protest music was virtually unknown.
The common wisdom about Holiday is that her singing was her life. She said it herself, and it certainly is true that the artistic density of her interpretations traces to her difficult personal journey. But there are moments in which she reveals another quality — an inner sweetness, even an innocence, that was essential to the fullness of her music, a momentary light-filled counterbalance to the darkness.
Note: An earlier version of this page incorrectly reported Holiday's birthday as April 15.