KEXP Documentaries: “Sirens of Jazz” – Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is possibly the most famous female jazz singer of all.  Though her voice ranged only about an octave, and she couldn’t read a note of music, Billie Holiday is hailed as one of the greatest musicians of all time for her interpretations of the songs. She was a storyteller. In life she was both tragic and triumphant. And her music has this vibrancy, this truth that makes her effective and memorable.

Her childhood was brutal, and by 14 she was jailed for prostitution.  As a teenager she went to an audition intending to dance for money, but at the last minute the piano player suggested she try singing, and she brought the house down.  She cut her first record with Benny Goodman at age 18.  Throughout her life, Billie battled with heroin addiction and depression. And the media exploited her as a trainwreck.  But it’s evident that Billie Holiday was intelligent, strong and sensitive.  She kept going despite everything and recorded up until her death at age 44.  She died handcuffed to a hospital bed, under arrest for narcotics possession. In her heyday she wore long white gowns and a gardenia in her hair. She’s quoted as saying “I’d wear the white dresses, and the white gardenia in my hair, and then they would bring me the white junk.”

Whether you view her as tragic or triumphant, Billie Holiday’s music is timeless and will live long past the rest of us.

Listen to this KEXP Documentary:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

KEXP Documentaries are created by Michele Myers. With assistance from John Felthous, Tiffany Grobelski, Abe Beeson and Mary Janisch. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole.  If you would like to follow along more closely in the creation of these radio stories, we post research materials, songs and videos on our Facebook page and on Twitter.

This entry was posted in KEXP, KEXP Documentaries and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Elisabeth
    Posted April 18, 2011 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    Billie Holiday, despite her flaws, was (and remains) a force to be reckoned with in every aspect of her life. She is the epitome of a tragic hero, and the reverberations of her voice and presence strike a chord on my heartstrings decades after her fire was snuffed out by the hard and fast life she lead. I loved this and the other entries in the Sirens of Jazz documentary, and would like to throw in my personal pitch for more 20s, 30s, and 40s jazz documentaries (please and thank you).

  2. Enid Sefcovic
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Billie’s “Strange Fruit” with her haunting voice and the lyrics too sad for tears is for me the musical snapshot of why we needed the Civil Rights movement.

    The blues in her voice so resonates with my soul — even though we could not be more demographically different — that there are times when I can hardly bear to listen.

    The world lost her too soon, like so many other musical greats. RIP, Billie.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Donate Now!

Donate to KEXP Today!

Donate to KEXP Today!
where the music matters

The KEXP Blog

Sponsored By
Become a KEXP Sponsor!
  • KEXP Post Categories