The Baltimore Museum of Art on Thursday hosted a presentation and exhibition by scholars from Johns Hopkins University about the formative years of iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday’s life, which were spent in Baltimore.
The exhibition, “The Birth of Jazz: Billie Holiday’s Baltimore,” comes after JHU’s Sheridan Libraries acquired what is considered to be the most significant collection of Holiday-related archives, including a photo of the singer as a 2-year-old, handwritten set lists for performances and a grocery shopping list written on crumpled paper.
The research is being headed by Professor Lawrence Jackson, a Baltimore native who directs the university’s Billie Holiday Center for the Liberation Arts, which aims to link Hopkins with the city’s historical Black communities.
Part of Thursday’s event was spent touching on the importance of having these Holiday-related materials, but more importantly, the presentation looked to contextualize what those materials not only mean for gaining a deeper understanding of Holiday as a person, but also for Black life in Baltimore between the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A short documentary directed by and starring Jackson opened the program. In the film, he hops around Baltimore identifying churches on the west and south sides of the city — Bethel A.M.E. and Ebenezer A.M.E.— that served as hubs for Black expression. In the 20th century, Baltimore became a vital breeding ground for jazz musicians, with clubs and juke joints sprinkled throughout the city. This is where a young Holiday would get her practice and inspiration.
Jackson’s film was followed by a lecture from Robert O’Meally, the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the author of “Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday,” which was published in 1991. Born in Philadelphia as Eleanora Fagan, the singer was raised in East Baltimore and in and around Fells Point by her teenage mother. She began singing at age 10 before the family moved to New York in 1929.
During his talk, O’Meally remembered his own mother’s perception of Holiday when he was growing up. She regularly referring to Holiday as “that poor girl” — a reaction to the singer’s turbulent childhood riddled with abuse, which led to an adulthood often spent addicted to heroin. He pushed against that labeling of Holiday and instead focused on how the singer was often in conversation with other prominent Black artists of her time through her work — most notably jazz great Louis Armstrong and visual artist Romare Bearden.
The presentation helped piece together the makings of an iconic artist whose life has been conveniently simplified in the decades since her passing on June 17, 1959 at age 44. After the talk, the event moved from the BMA’s auditorium to its Fox Court, where informational panels expanded on the presentation’s mission. Renderings of impressive artifacts included a printed interview from 1971 with Holiday’s childhood friend Mary Kane, a photo of Holiday and friends at a club in 1939, and a photo of her father in 1910.
“My mother was very unhappy that I was listening to Billie Holiday records,” O’Meally, a Washington, D.C., native, said after the presentation. “She was concerned that I could be led astray by this woman who was a drug addict and omnisexual and who told the truth about things like, ‘I love my man but he beats me.’ She didn’t want me associated with that. But that made me want to hear her all the more because, for me, it wasn’t a question of class or anything like that. It was the voice.”
Being steered away from Holiday led O’Meally to delve more deeply into her work, and his biography of the singer is lauded as one of the most complete studies of her life. A year prior to his book’s release, a documentary of the same name he wrote hit the screen.
For Lawrence Jackson, being from Baltimore added extra incentive to get this history right to frame it correctly, as it tells the story of so many more Black natives of the city — names that will not be remembered like Holiday’s.
“In a way, this is a vindication project for Black communities in Baltimore City,” Jackson said. “You can make the argument that the modern Civil Rights movement would have been impossible without the impact of this city as an institution that produces educated, aggressive, intellectual and uncompromising Black people. Their writings, their leadership and their activism transformed the country. In that same way we should understand Holiday’s music. We have something to offer the world and maybe the world doesn’t know about it because this is the segregated South. We live in a hyper-segregated society. We don’t know what the empowered group is doing to destroy the heritage and legacy of what we have done.”