In this era, jazz heralds a paradigm shift. The rules of engagement have changed and no safe conduct is assured. Our predecessors made great strides, and overcame tremendous obstacles, in order to pass along their precious messages and memories through music. Courage, commitment, and integrity rule the day.
Jazz practitioners are not natural entertainers. We are musicians who carry the legends and lore of an art form that is constantly evolving while also retaining a steadfast connection to its genesis. University curricula now include jazz studies, thereby bestowing legitimacy on one of America’s most prized indigenous art forms. Matriculation is based on learning the form inside of Western musical constructs—scales, modes, harmonies, melodies—but no mysteries. And the mysteries are the key to unlocking the pathway to the sublime. They cannot be taught in universities or conventional institutions. They are received only by sitting at the feet of the masters. Your initiation is confirmed by your acknowledgment of the elders and your reverence for the ancestors. Only then will you be deemed a worthy conduit.
My first encounter with the music of Billie Holiday was bittersweet. An old photograph, taken in my aunt’s Chicago home, revealed the weary, heartbroken, and majestic visage of an ill-fated icon. Her hands were swollen and her smile was laconic. I asked my father about this photograph. He told me that it was taken at a party held in her honor after a performance in Chicago. He never played her music for me in our home, I think because the stories surrounding her life were too salacious and sad to share with a teenager. Nowadays, most people remember her drug addiction more than her undeniable contribution to the American Songbook. And you hear her music in a multitude of places and media: in film soundtracks, television advertisements, retail stores, and cocktail lounges. Everyone loves Billie Holiday now. But would they have loved her as much while she sang “Strange Fruit” at Café Society in 1939? America is still plagued by an alarming degree of racism toward Americans of African descent. My album Coming Forth by Day celebrates Billie Holiday as one of the original figures to address this malady; she was a jazz legend who found a deeply visceral approach to song interpretation and devised an indisputably singular voice.
Tall tales still cast shadows over the legacy of Lady Day. You rarely see balanced and informed criticism of her music and the music of many of her successors. Many journalists either don’t take the time to educate themselves or they simply spout specious critiques for the sake of notoriety and compensation. Either way, we are all shortchanged by this kind of reckless journalism.
For the record, I will express my intentions here and now: I follow this path to pay respect to my elders, homage to the ancestors, and to present uniquely inspired performances for my audiences. This is not the workplace for a diva; it is a sacred space for the rituals of an adept. Those of you who believe I live an incredibly lavish lifestyle are sorely mistaken. My means are modest because my calling is paramount. I will always seek the truth and never lose my courage to express what matters. I own what I create in the marketplace. The marketplace does not own me.
I am forever indebted to the fans who have supported me through the years. I place the highest value on our connection. Your support always inspires and uplifts me. I solemnly vow to deliver the best that I can in my moments with you. As my mentor Abbey Lincoln once said, “The best thing you can do is to be a woman and stand before the world and speak your heart.”