When I first started exploring jazz in the late 1990s, vocal jazz wasn’t tops on my list. I preferred (and still prefer) the instrumental stuff from the late 1940s through the late 1960s.
However, I still made it a point to listen to the major names of the genre when it came to vocal jazz, too, because if I was self-educating, I wanted to take it all in. Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and many others helped me zero in on the aspects of vocal jazz I liked.
Then there was Billie Holiday. Her haunting voice was already familiar to me, in no small part because it’s been imitated so many times. It was … different. Otherworldly. There was little joy here, and zero bounce. It was mostly just pain slithering out of your speakers.
That resonated. Not because I was in pain, but because it felt real and honest when most other singers of the era were essentially playing characters for their songs.
One that really slapped me in the face was, unsurprisingly, “Strange Fruit,” recorded in 1939. I listened to it many times before I actually listened to the lyrics and realized what it was about.
And wow, was it dark. Dark and harrowing and haunting.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Imagine singing a song about lynching that was this potent and pointed, and doing it in 1939. Incredible boldness. Still hits hard today, too