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From the gritty to the sublime, Billie Holiday’s journey to jazz immortality is chronicled in an unsparing first-person account in the simply titled Billie Holiday: The Graphic Novel (Women in Jazz). The narrative begins, literally, on the streets of Harlem, where the singer beats the hell out of a man who disrespects her before wiping blood from her knuckles, taking the stage at The Apollo Theatre and tearing down the house.
Unscrupulous management, soul-crushing racism and sexism and the ever-present specter of childhood trauma weighed heavily on Holiday, but her preternatural determination and outsize talent brought her to the top again and again. Her gifts won her a spot in the Count Basie and Artie Shaw orchestras, as well as recording contracts, but her uncompromising nature as it related to her artistry assured that it wouldn’t be a smooth road ahead.
One of the most moving elements of the book, written by Ebony Gilbert and David Calcano and illustrated by Linsday Lee and Juan Riera, is Holiday’s relationship with the eccentric saxophonist Lester Young. The platonic love they shared was crucial to both artists, visionaries whose abilities were treasured but whose quirky personalities made them perpetual outsiders.
Rendered for the most part in rich violet hues, the narrative takes on an amber tone when it dips into flashbacks from Holiday’s childhood. But make no mistake, this is hardly done for nostalgic sentimentality, as the singer’s brutal upbringing is revealed as a prelude to the pain she’d endure throughout her life and the raw material for the art she’d create. The book captures the highs and the lows, from the breakthroughs of the incredibly personal performances of “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child” to the violent, unhealthy romantic relationships and the drug busts, capturing the tragedies and triumphs of a turbulent life.
In this excerpt, Holiday first meets Young — they dubbed each other “Lady Day” and “Pres,” respectively — when she joins the Basie band.
Click on the slideshow below to enlarge.
Featured images and graphic novel excerpt by David Calcano and Ebony Gilbert, courtesy of Women in Jazz.