New book explores how religion shaped Billie Holiday’s music


TED SIMONS: LEGENDARY JAZZ VOCALIST BILLIE HOLIDAY IS CONSIDERED BY SOME TO HAVE INVENTED JAZZ SINGING. IT WAS A STYLE INSPIRED BY JAZZ INSTRUMENTALISTS AND FOCUSED ON PHRASING AND TEMPO.

TED SIMONS: THAT SINGING STYLE CAME FROM A TROUBLED LIFE AND FROM RELIGION. THAT'S ACCORDING TO A NEW BOOK, "RELIGION AROUND BILLIE HOLIDAY," WRITTEN BY ASU RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROFESSOR TRACY FESSENDEN: WHO JOINS US NOW TO TALK ABOUT HER NEW BOOK. WELCOME TO ARIZONA HORIZON.

TRACY FESSENDEN: HAPPY TO BE HERE.

TED SIMONS: WHO WAS BILLIE HOLIDAY.

TRACY FESSENDEN: BILLIE HOLIDAY WAS THE WORLD'S GREATEST JAZZ SINGER. BORN IN 1915. DIED AT 44. YOUNG AGE. SHE CAME UP IN A VERY DIFFICULT SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES AND PRETTY MUCH ON HER OWN FROM AGE OF 11. DID RECEIVE SOME VOCAL INSTRUCTION IN CONVENT WHICH I FIND INTERESTING. AND FROM THAT POINT ON, SHE REALLY DID CHANGE THE WAY THAT WE HEAR MUSIC. NOT JUST JAZZ MUSIC.

TED SIMONS: LET'S GET TO IT REGARDING RELIGION AND BILLIE HOLIDAY. SHE LEARNED VOCAL STYLINGS THERE.

TRACY FESSENDEN: WE HEAR SHE WAS A NATURAL. SHE HAD TREMENDOUS GIFTS. CERTAINLY A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF DISCIPLINE THAT SHE APPLIED TO HER OWN CRAFT. SHE WASN'T ENTIRELY SELF TAUGHT. SHE RECEIVED FORMAL VOCAL INSTRUCTION AT HOUSE OF GOOD SHEPHERD FOR COLORED GIRLS IN BALTIMORE. THIS IS INSTITUTION RUN BY SISTERS OF GOOD SHEPHERD WHERE BILLIE HOLIDAY WAS SENT TWICE BETWEEN AGES OF 10 AND 12. SANG A DAILYY MASS AND SANG THE GREGORIAN CHANTS THAT HAD UNDER GONE A REVIVAL.

TED SIMONS: CAN YOU HEAR ANY OF THAT IN HER VOICE?

TRACY FESSENDEN: I DO HEAR THAT.

TED SIMONS: DO YOU?

TRACY FESSENDEN: WHAT I HEAR IS INNOVATIONS, REVISIONS THAT WERE MADE TO CHANT BY A GROUP OF MONKS AT MONASTERY IN FRANCE. WHO TOOK IT UPON HIMSELF TO RENEW GREGORIAN CHANT. IT WOULD FREE IT. THAT WOULD HAVE MADE IT SOUND FAMILIAR TO 17th AND 18th CENTURY YEARS. SEEMS TO HAVE FALLEN AWAY FROM THE ORIGINAL WAYS IN WHICH CHANT WAS SUNG IN 11th AND 12 CENTURY. MONKS TRIED TO FREE CHANT FROM AS THEY CALLED THE MATERIALITY OF RHYTHM. WANTED RHYTHM TO BE A SING OF SPIRIT. WANTED THEM TO DIRECT THEM TO SING THEM QUICKLY AND LIGHTLY IN UNPREDICTABLE GROUPS OF TWO AND THREE.

TED SIMONS: THAT SOUNDS LIKE BILLIE HOLIDAY. OTHER RELYTIOUS ASPECTS, BLACK SOUTHERN CHURCHES.

TRACY FESSENDEN: SHE DID NOT HAVE A BLACK CHURCH BACKGROUND. SHE'S DIFFERENT FROM OTHER CONTEMPORARIES. SHE GREW UP IN CATHOLIC CHURCH TO THE DEGREE SHE WAS NURTURED. RAISED A CATHOLIC. SHE UNDERSTOOD HOW THE SOUND OF BLACK CHURCH GOSPEL AND BLUES THAT DEPARTS FROM BLACK CHURCH. RETAINS A GOOD PART OF SOUND. SHE UNDERSTOOD HOW IMPORTANT THAT SOUND WAS. SHE COULD DO HER OWN TAKE ON THE SPIRITUAL IF SHE CHOSE TO.

TED SIMONS: I THOUGHT THIS WAS INTERESTING. PEN AT A COSTALLISM OF ROADHOUSE. EXPLAIN, PLEASE.

TRACY FESSENDEN: SCHOLARS ARE INTERESTED IN LESS CONCERNED WITH PERSONAL PRONOUNCEMENTS OF GIVEN SEX OR CHURCH. WE ARE INTERESTED IN WAY RELATIONS THAT LIVE. WE ARE OUR EARS TUNED TO SOUND OF RELIGION OUTSIDE OF PRECINCTS OF CHURCHES. WHEN WE THINK OF ROCK MUSIC OR BLUES, I HEAR A GREAT DEAL OF GOSPEL SOUND. THE FIRST TIME THAT ROCK AND ROLL USED IN AMERICAN PRESS WAS TO DESCRIBE A HOLY ROLLER, ROCK ME. THEY CAME UP WITH TERM OF ROCK AND ROLL TO DESCRIBE HER SOUND.

TED SIMONS: THE JEWISHISH OFFSTAGE. YOU SEE THAT IN HER AS WELL.

TRACY FESSENDEN: YES. YES. WHEN WE THINK ABOUT THE SOUND OF THE 20th CENTURY, SHOW TUNES THAT WE ASSOCIATE WITH ROGERS AND HEARTS AND GERSHWINS. THESE ARE COMPOSERS WHO COME TO AMERICA IN MOST CASES TO ESCAPE 30 OR SECOND GENERATION SOMETIMES REFUGEES OR ESCAPEES FROM TERRORISM OF EASTERN EUROPE. WHAT WRITERS FOUND IN AMERICA AND WHAT THEY PUT INTO AMERICAN SONGBOOK WAS HAVE DISTINCTIVE SOUND. UNDERSTANDING FREEDOM AND OPENNESS AND LACK OF CONSTRAINT CAFE OF ANY KIND --

AFFIRMATION BY SINGER THAT IS SANG IN CLUBS. THAT COLLABORATION GIVES US THE SOUND OF AMERICA.

TED SIMONS: YOU MENTIONED AS WELL THE SPIRITUAL POETRY OF HARLEM RENAISSANCE. WERE YOU LISTENING TO BILLIE HOLIDAY AND SAY, I CAN HEAR A CATHOLIC CHANT.

TRACY FESSENDEN: I DIDN'T KNOW SHE WAS CATHOLIC WHEN I STARTED THIS PROJECT. I WROTE A BOOK. THIS IS INVITATION THE SERIES BRILLIANTLY RELIEVED. BOILED AS YOU KNOW SANG VERY LITTLE THAT WE COULD CALL RELIGIOUS. NOT ASSOCIATED WITH A CHURCH OR CHURCH BACKGROUND. I LOVED HER MUSIC AND HAD ALWAYS BEEN HAUNTED BY IT AND KNEW I COULD SPEND EVERY DAY AND NIGHT LISTENING TO HER FOR THE TIME IT TOOK ME TO WRITE THIS BOOK.

TED SIMONS: DO YOU THINK SHE REALIZED THAT SOUNDED LIKE WHEN I WAS AT CONVENT OR THAT'S ROADHOUSE OR THAT'S ROCK AND BLUES? DO YOU THINK SHE REALIZED THAT OR JUST SINGING?

TRACY FESSENDEN: SHE DIDN'T LEAVE A JOURNAL OR ANY KIND OF CHRONICAL OF HER LIFE. WE DON'T HAVE ACCESS TO HER THOUGHTS FOR THE MOST PART. I KNOW SHE WAS SINGING IN BALTIMORE FROM AGE OF 11. SINGING IN HER DISTINCTIVE WAY AT THE TIME W IN THE CONVENT.

TED SIMONS: LAST QUESTION. WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE HAVE YOU GOTTEN FROM RESEARCH FROM THE BOOK? WHEN YOU TELL PEOPLE THIS, WHAT DO THEY SAY?

TRACY FESSENDEN: EVERYONE HAS A BILLIE HOLIDAY STORY AND MEMORY OR SONG. I HAD MARVELOUS CONVERSATIONS WITH ALL KINDS OF AUDIENCES WITH THIS BOOK.

TED SIMONS: NOT THAT BILLIE HOLIDAY MAY HAVE BEEN WORSHIPED IN CERTAIN WAY OR PATH. ALL OF THESE IDEAS AND SPIRITUAL IMPETUS, ALL COVERED HER. ALL THERE FOR HER.

TRACY FESSENDEN: UH-HUH.

TED SIMONS: FASCINATING STUFF. CONGRATULATIONS ON THE BOOK.

TRACY FESSENDEN: THANK YOU SO MUCH.

TED SIMONS: THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

TRACY FESSENDEN: I'M DELIGHTED.

TED SIMONS: WE WILL TALK ABOUT HIS NEW ROLE AND IMPORTANCE HE PLACES ON SUCCESS OF PLAYERS ON AND OFF THE FIELD. HERM EDWARDS ON NEXT ARIZONA HORIZON. I'M TED SIMONS. THAT'S IT. YOU HAVE A GREAT EVENING.

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.

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Tracy Fessenden: Author, "Religion Around Billie Holiday"

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