Big Bands and Bandmasters

Who was “Lady Day”?

When jazz great Billie “Lady Day” Holiday (1915–1959) teamed up with the Artie Shaw Band and toured the country, it was the first time a black woman and a white band shared the same stage. She was born Elenora Fagan in Baltimore, Maryland. She later moved to New York and, at age fifteen, sought work in various nightspots. Although she had no formal training as a singer or dancer, customers liked her, and she was hired. She became a regular in Harlem clubs and was in demand as a singer. In 1937 she toured with Count Basie’s orchestra and became soloist with Artie Shaw’s white band. Jazz saxophonist Lester Young nicknamed her “Lady Day” when she was with Count Basie’s band. She assumed the name “Billie” from movie star Billie Dove. Holiday was known for wearing gardenias in her hair and performing with her eyes nearly closed. Her protest song “Strange Fruit” was a ballad about lynching; the fruit represented black men hanging from trees. At the peak of her career in the late 1930s and early 1940s, she began to struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. After being jailed on a drug charge, she tried to recapture her life, but her addiction led to poor health and death.

Billie “Lady Day” Holiday was an early giant of American pop and jazz singing.


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