New book explores how religion shaped Billie Holiday’s music
May 7, 2018
Some credit Billie Holiday as the founder of jazz singing, a style focused on phrasing and tempo. In a new book, ASU religious studies professor Tracy Fessenden explores how various religious influences in Holiday’s life affected her music.
Fessenden’s book “Religion Around Billie Holiday” is the result of a project that studies how iconic figures were affected by the variety of religion surrounding them. Since Holiday wasn’t necessarily religious, but was raised Catholic and was trained in a convent as a young girl, Fessenden though she would be perfect for the study.
Holiday was born in 1915 and was brought up in difficult circumstances. She was on her own for the most part starting at the age of 11. Around that time, she was sent to a Baltimore convent for about a year, where she received her first and only formal vocal lessons, as well as singing Gregorian chant and a daily mass.
“I hear that [the Catholic vocal training] in her voice,” Fessenden says. “I hear the innovations and the revisions that were made to chant by a group of monks who took it upon themselves to renew Gregorian chant… They wanted rhythm to be a thing of the spirit. The directed those who sang the mass to sing the notes quickly and lightly in the way of ordinary speech or in unpredictable groups of two or three. That can be a description of Billie Holiday’s singing.”
What separates Holiday from her contemporaries is the fact that she didn’t have what is thought of as a black church background. She was raised Catholic, though Fessenden says Holiday certainly understood the importance of the gospel and blues styles that originated in black Protestant churches.
Holiday was also influenced by the music of Jewish composers who helped to shape the sound of the 20th century, including Irving Berlin and the Gershwins. “What they put in the American songbook was a very distinctive sound of a particular way of understanding freedom and openness,” Fessenden says.
Fessenden says she has had “marvelous” conversations because of her book. She says everyone has a Holiday story, memory or favorite song. The book allows the reader to gain a new perspective on how those songs came to life.