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Billie Holiday From First To Last

Billy Holiday From First To Last

The one and only Lady Day in film appearances from 1935 to 1957. The program concludes with the second half of the “Sound of Jazz” television show from 1957 which features the greatest assemblage of jazz talent ever assembled before a camera.    Total running time 85 minutes. See notes at bottom.

Program List

Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life (1935)
Uncredited Billie appears at the middle of a Duke Ellington short to sing a blues song.

New Orleans (1947)
Reel One of the Feature
This includes the opening titles and credits and Billie appearing as a maid before you see her as a singer. Louis Armstrong and his band perform several songs with Louis playing cornet (instead of trumpet) as he had during the start of his career.
Billie sings “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” with Louis and the band.

Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet (1951)
The Basie Band with Wardell Gray backs up Billie as she sings “God Bless the Child” and “Now Baby or Never.

“The Seven Lively Arts”The Sound of Jazz (1957)
The complete second half of this hour show opens with Count Basie leading an all-star band performing the song Dickies Dream while Billie offers encouragement. The band includes Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Jerry Mulligan, Dickie Wells and others. Billie sings “Fine and Mellow” accompanied by Lester Young and an all-star group.  The reel will play to the end of the show.  That will include Thelonius Monk, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Jim Atlas and others.

The Sound of Jazz reunited Billie Holiday with her ex-lover Lester Young.  They had worked together in the thirties.  The song Fine and Mellow was from 1939. Nat Hentoff was involved in the broadcast, which was aired live.  He recalled that during rehearsals they didn’t speak and that Lester, who was in extreme ill health, was so weak that Hentoff told him he could take his solo on Fine and Mellow sitting down. At the broadcast Hentoff watched as Lester heroically arose from his chair:

“Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways. ”  Both of them would be dead within two years.

Notes:

When I ran the Rosebud Movie Palace in Seattle, I liked to present vintage films in the manner they were first shown. That would be with a newsreel, short subject, and cartoon. The problem with this was that the rental fees for the shorts ate up the movie profits. A friend working for me at the theater came up with an idea. He would spend his wages on shorts. I would get to show them and he would get to own them.

One of the first shorts he bought was “Symphony in Black” (1934) featuring Duke Ellington. Eighteen year old Billie Holiday appears in the middle of it to sing one song. I had another friend who owned many jazz shorts. One was “The Sound of Jazz“, a 1957 hour long TV show, which also happened to feature Billie Holiday. I discovered I could pack the house with these films. In 1994 I made a deal to buy all of the shorts my friend had bought with his Rosebud Movie Palace wages. I also bought my own print of the “The Sound of Jazz“. Now I had the bookends of Billie Holiday’s career.

I was later able to buy footage of her performing in the feature New Orleans (1947) and in a short from 1951.  Only recently did I acquire the full first reel of New Orleans which is now in the show.

Billie Holliday: FIrst to Last ran at the Pike Street Cinema in Seattle, The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Cinema Village in New York City, and at Husets Biograf in Copenhagen as part of ten program jazz film festival I provided for them in 2001.