“When Billie Holiday sings, we hear a song but we feel the truth,” says Yana Stotland, director of 92Y’s School of Music, and the force behind 92Y’s new series of events, Billie Holiday: Reaching for the Moon. “Among those truths was an early cry against racism. At this watershed moment in our society in 2020, I thought it time we take a closer look at one of the most iconic figures in music.”
Stotland, who spearheaded 92Y’s Charlie Parker Centennial events this summer, conceived the new series as a way to celebrate Billie Holiday’s artistry and explore her legacy — not only as a musician, but as a social justice pioneer — in a range of multidisciplinary events across 92Y’s programming centers. The series launches on Sunday, November 22 with a free screening of the upcoming documentary BILLIE from Emmy Award-winning director James Erskine. Based on interviews recorded in the 1970s intended as the foundation of a never-realized biography, the film captures the singer in the words of those who worked with her (Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, others), her friends and lovers, even the FBI agents who arrested her. It confronts Billie’s adoption of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” her outspokenness about racial injustice, and the enemies she earned along the way. Raw and unflinching, BILLIE exposes truths about Holiday’s struggles and her courage, adding new insights into her extraordinary musical legacy.
That musical legacy is celebrated the weekend of December 5 and 6, beginning with a free listening party hosted by jazz radio station WBGO’s Rhonda Hamilton. Hamilton dives into one of the greatest discographies in music, sharing and exploring essential Billie tracks from the 1930s through what many consider her masterpiece, 1959s Lady in Satin. The streaming of a live concert on our stage follows on Sunday, with two of the most stellar singers in jazz — Catherine Russell and Veronica Swift — accompanied by the Emmet Cohen Trio and Tivon Pennicott on tenor sax, celebrating Billie’s spellbinding artistry through every chapter of her musical career, with signature songs like “Lover Man,” “Easy Living,” “God Bless the Child” and more.
“Billie Holiday was so much more than a singer,” says Stotland. “Her music is filled with the heartache of her struggles — being Black, being a woman, being a woman exploited by men, overcoming a turbulent childhood, speaking truth to power — the poignancy of everything that informed her approach to a song can be heard in that song. And her influence on other musicians — not only singers, and not only in jazz — remains enormous.”
The series continues in early 2021, with dance and visual arts events, a roundtable discussion with prominent Billie-influenced vocalists led by jazz bass master Christian McBride, and a conversation in our 92Y Confronts Hate initiative with Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer David Margolick and Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin. Margolick is the author of Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, and the talk focuses on the song — claimed by Holiday 16 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. One of Billie’s defining recordings, it has been called “the first unmuted cry against racism” by jazz writer Leonard Feather, and by legendary Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertugan, “the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
“In this year of reckoning on racial inequities and our fight for a more fair and just society, it’s remarkable to look at what Billie was standing up for in the 1930s,” says Stotland. “She was at the beginning of a movement against white supremacy that has been painfully slow to see change. She took it upon herself to speak out and to take risks. Tragically, she paid the price.”
“Billie Holiday was a pioneer,” says Stotland, “a musical innovator and an early advocate for social justice. The breadth of programming at 92Y gives us the opportunity to really examine her life and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of all she fought for and gave us. You’re left discovering her music all over again.”
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REACHING FOR THE MOON — An Exploration and Celebration of Billie Holiday is made possible by the generous support of Gilda Block.