Book Review: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill
This is an intimate portrait of a sliver of time in the short but tumultuous life of the uniquely talented blues and jazz singer, Billie Holiday, also affectionately and respectfully known as Lady Day by fans and colleagues. It is a rare glimpse of a period of time which follows the singer during a gig in Newark, New Jersey for the week of Easter in 1957. Photographer Jerry Dantzic was given the assignment by Decca Records, Holiday’s label, partially on account of his friendship with her biographer William Dufty, who had just completed Lady Sings the Blues. Most likely, this connection aided the relaxed personal access Dantzic was afforded, as Holiday was extremely close to Dufty and his wife Maely as she was the godmother to their son Bevan.
What we are given here are 100 mostly unpublished, largely black and white images of Holiday on stage, backstage, getting dressed, putting on make-up and jewelry, always smoking, having a cocktail, always accompanied by her much-loved and doted on chihuahua, Pepi. Included is a charming image of her being zipped into her spangled strapless dress by her new husband Louis McKay. There are also are quite a few candid moments of encounters with fans on the sidewalks of Newark— Holiday looking every inch the perfectly dressed lady, decked out in her daytime jewelry, mink coat and jeweled compact to ensure make-up impeccability. She believed in appearances for her public. This is what makes the backstage images so poignant. She appears positively girlish as she allows us to watch the process as she assumes her onstage persona, laughing easily with Dantzic and whomever else was in the room.
Additionally, there are a few color photos of her performance in August of that same year at the 2nd New York Jazz Festival on Randall’s Island, as well as shots of downtime spent with the Duftys at their home. She looks quite comfortable and contented with little of her pain and suffering registering in these moments. Sad to realize it was only two years later that she passed at age 44. What a lot she packed into those years.
The book is something of a major accomplishment, as well as an act of love and devotion by Jerry’s son Grayson, a trained archivist and photographer in his own right, who spent 16 years on this particular project. He meticulously details the technical aspects of most of the images, illuminating the difficulty of putting it together in a coherent manner without the help of his father who died 10 years ago. It is a fitting posthumous tribute to his father and his work on a project, which obviously meant a lot to him, by giving it a second life.
Additionally, there is an opening reflection by Zadie Smith. It is a wonderful imagined account of the words of Lady Day herself, which could have accompanied some of the images. Evocative, vivid and colorfully she conjures up a convincing possibility of the truth. Altogether, a richly rewarding, insightful and soulful pleasure.