Jazz with Mr. C: Jazzmeia Horn, Billie Holiday, and the Evolution of the Female Jazz Singer

 

By Jeff Cebulski

 

 

I’ve been your slave, baby

Ever since I’ve been your babe

I’ve been your slave

Ever since I’ve been your babe

But before I’ll be your dog

I’ll see you in your grave . . .

. . . Some say to me Billie

Baby, you’re built for speed

Now, if you put all that together

Makes me everything a good man needs

 

Billie Holiday (excerpted from “Billie’s Blues” on LyricFind; © 1956, 1962, Edward B. Marks Music Co.)

 

 

“My name is Johnny, honey

So come on and dance with me”

I said, “Not tonight, oh Johnny

Won’t you just let me be?”

He said, “You’re just givin’ me the blues now baby,

All I want is one lil’ old dance, one lil’ old dance, yeahhh”

I said, “Not tonight, papa

’Cause you’re just trying to get in my pants.”

 

 

 

Jazzmeia Horn (transcribed from “Still Tryin’” from Love and Liberation, Concord Jazz, 2019)

 

The jazz singer and songwriter Jazzmeia Horn’s newest album, Love and Liberation, is, in my humble view, the Album of 2019, not only because it exhibits this rising artist’s wondrous talent but also because it is imbued with a clearly postmodern, though ironic, attitude, something that links her directly to another great talent, Billie Holiday, even if it is represented in a different tangent within a context of feminist choice.

 

The fact that the album’s final song, “I Thought About You,” is one that Billie also sang, got me thinking about these two. “I Thought About You” has been recorded several times by jazz singers, but the majority of those renderings stay close to the original, which is lightly rhythmed, almost dancey. Holiday sang it slower, like a torch song, suggesting a past, lost relationship. Horn’s version is bluesy and positive, but her thoughts are directed elsewhere: Every time I sing “I Thought About You” I think about my children when I have to take an airplane or train and leave them behind, or even if they’re on the road with me, I always have to go to sound check and leave them with the nanny. This song is about my little girls.

 

And that is a big clue to the difference between these women, one who was both trapped and self-enticed by a world dictated by men (“baby, you’re built for speed”), the other who staunchly refuses to let her world be defined by men (“not tonight, papa”). Both women demanded context control, but the context was their business, not ours. It extends to race and manners, as well. Holiday famously sang “Strange Fruit”; Horn reclaims (and honors) Jon Hendricks’ civil rights turn on Hubert Laws’ “No More,” making the song a double-conscious riffing on being black and female.

 

Attitude.

 

Someday, someone with more time than I have will write about the evolution of American woman jazz singer from the nicely-dressed lady in front of all-male orchestras, to the tough-minded but often-compromised chanteuse, to the sometimes angry, respect-demanding woman, to the inwardly driven but outwardly restrained artist, to the sexually self-defined-almost-Puritan-but-not-quite feminist. In fact, a history of women in North America could be couched in the context of jazz.

 

 

No matter how one tries to describe that evolution, the distance between Holiday and Horn is significant. The bipolarity of “Billie’s Blues,” for example, is striking; apparently it’s okay to be someone’s slave, but not their dog. Yet, Holiday, in remarks about her lover/embezzler John Levy, said, in dog-loyal terms, “If he was to walk into the room this minute, I’d melt. He’s my man and I love him,” even though he beat her and left her behind to face drug charges. For all of her stubbornness and intelligence about her art, her codependency on lovers and, ultimately, on alcohol and drugs, undermined her clearly determined effort to be respectably self-defined.

 

You can argue that Holiday was a victim of her environment and time, and that is a strong contention worth defending. Yet, Holiday never quite played the victim; she at least had the dignity of choice, whether anyone liked it or not: “my own damn business,” she said. And that is the place where Jazzmeia Horn meets Billie Holiday, ironic though it is. Horn, on this new album, demands her own dignity by being representative of gender without necessarily oozing sexuality. One wonders just how Holiday would react to Horn if the two were to live at the same time. Horn identifies with being Southern Baptist; Holiday at times seemed to be areligious, perhaps amoral. I suspect some in the jazz world might balk, in fact, at how Horn doesn’t fit in with the common, conventional view of female jazz singer as demure, if not sultry.

 

But when one has her chops, well . . . can you deny her the dignity she claims?

 

 

On Love and Liberation, Horn clearly demonstrates those chops on every song, proclaiming that she can sing those songs for her reasons and meaning, not yours; she panders to no one. In that way, this album is refreshing for its direct honesty and its choices, dominated by issue-relevant messages for a new generation: “Free Your Mind” expresses a need to tear away from things like social media; “Only You” celebrates monogamy; the remarkable “Legs and Arms” was initiated by Horn’s experience with a stalker, turning it around to NOT play the victim; and “Searchin’” is Hendricks on steroids, an antic paean to the search for the right mate.

 

Yet, Horn’s re-creation of Erykah Badu’s “Green Eyes” is probably the best cut, a soulful, swinging arrangement that jells the songstress with her band.

 

And I, the listener, have to step back on my own presumptions. When I first heard “When I Say,” I figured it was the demand of the righteous feminist. Now I understand that Horn is playing with the viewpoint of her children who demand mom’s attention, then turning it around on her band. (You can read about that at https://mediakits.concord.com/p/love-and-liberation/track-by-track.html.)

 

I suppose I can claim the listener’s right to have a song or even an album mean whatever, but now I think I will follow her lead. She’s earned it. It is, in fact, her own damn business.

 

"Jazz with Mr. C" is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at bullski@hotmail.com

 

Jeff Cebulski