José James: The Music Of Billie Holiday

Vanessa de Largie | Milk Bar Magazine | June 15, 2016

In celebration of jazz-songstress Billie Holiday’s centennial, José James returned to The Melbourne International Jazz Festival this week with songs from his Blue Note release Yesterday I Had The Blues, his tribute to Lady Day, who he refers to as his ‘musical mother’.  I had the privilege of interviewing James and experiencing his incredible show.  Here’s what he had to say:

Can you remember when you first heard the dulcet tones of Billie Holiday? Tell us about that moment.
I remember the moment that I first experienced Billie. To me, encountering an artist is more than the sound, it’s the look and feel of their aesthetic. Like Dylan or Coltrane. I was three years old going through my mom’s vinyl collection and I stopped cold on her cover. It was black and white, of course, with her iconic gardenia in her hair. I asked my mom to play it and first heard her voice, which has reminded me of home ever since.

Whilst touring around the world with this show, does a particular performance/gig stand out? If so, why?
Not really, everywhere is special in its own way. What does stand out is how much people live Billie all round the world. I mean everywhere. There are certain artists and certain songs – like ‘Moanin” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers for example – that people know and love, even if they don’t know shit about jazz. It’s powerful and fascinating.

How did you go about selecting the songs? As a devoted Billie Holiday fan myself, I imagine it would have been tough.
It sounds funny, but I only picked the songs I knew I would sound good on and that I related to emotionally. When you’re a younger singer, you want to impress everyone by picking obscure or hard to sing songs. Like ‘Weird Nightmare’ by Mingus, which he wrote for Billie, something like that. Now that I’m older, I realise a song like ‘Body and Soul’ is precious because it precisely conveys a very specific human emotion and feeling. And by doing that it becomes eternal.

I’ve heard you speak about Billie Holiday – the feminist. Would you like to convey your thoughts, in regards to that?
Think about it. She championed gender issues back in the ’40s and ’50s when everyone was terrified of doing that. She was outspoken and wonderful. She lived an openly bisexual life and championed civil and human rights in the face of sexism, racism and persecution by the US government.

Thank you for your time José!

José James is on his way to Germany for the next part of his tour.  We wish him well.