6.28.2011

Billie Holiday ends her set with Strange Fruit

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Early in 1939, a New York teacher called Abel Meeropol – aka Lewis Allan – wrote a song inspired by the lynching of two black men in the deep south. In April of that year, he went to New York's first integrated club, Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, and was introduced to the cult venue's star turn, a young Billie Holiday. Meeropol sang Holiday his song and gave her the lyrics; a week later she ended her set with it, leaving her audience stunned.

The jazz world is suspicious of Strange Fruit. It hasn't really become a jazz standard and has probably been covered by more pop stars (Robert Wyatt, the Gun Club, Jeff Buckley …) than jazz musicians. But it remains a key moment in jazz history, not least because it explicitly addressed the civil rights struggle that black jazz musicians had implicitly been a part of. Sonically, Holiday – who had learned her craft in the bands of Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson – puts in a performance that exploits fully the dynamic potential of the recently developed microphone, something that would become increasingly important for any jazz singer.

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