Today, April 7, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan. It is also the day that Cassandra Wilson releases the much-anticipated CD Coming Forth by Day, her extraordinary homage to Billie Holiday. There have been and will be many tributes to Holiday, some of them exceptional. But it is Wilson more than any of the other great vocalists of this time, who is clearly the musical and spiritual granddaughter of Lady Day. Granddaughter because her most direct influence was the late Abby Lincoln who was also deeply affected musically by Holiday. That musical lineage, Holiday, Lincoln, is undeniable in this new album.
Coming Forth by Day is Grammy Award-winning jazz singer Cassandra Wilson with all of her gifts and experience fully engaged and on display. On this album it is her singular voice, the ability to read a lyric in a way not heard before, and her encyclopedic musical vocabulary working at its highest level to discover something new. She is not trying to imitate Lady Day. Wilson’s intention is clearly to dig deeper and say something significant about Holiday and how who she was and who she’d come from was always present in her music.
Consistent with the jazz musicians of her era, Holiday had an exceptionally productive career that included more than 300 recorded songs. Implicit in Billie Holiday’s music is a demand for recognition that her unique storytelling emerged from the experience of Black people living under de jure and de facto segregation and oppression. Holiday understood and found beauty in that experience because she knew it was capable of facing its sorrow and strength, its joy and hurt, which she could often project in the same phrase. It was evident in the way she attacked and presented a story. Her songs were public and private conversations with her unmistakable statement of certainty and the required space for an emotional response from the listener. Holiday never hovered on the surface of a lyric and never relied on the pure unique sound of her voice. She was always deep inside it, seeking its secrets. She also demanded recognition of her truth explicitly. In the context and subtext of her songs is the struggle as woman to live, love, work and to laugh, play, cry, to fall and to stand, to be fully human. Her power as an artist was never felt more than when she performed the emotionally wrenching “Strange Fruit” as protest against the lynching of black people which seemed an acceptable practice of American culture of the time.
Cassandra Wilson has also created an impressive body of work that includes 20 solo albums and dozens of collaborations with a wide-range of artists from Wynton Marsalis to the Roots. She too she is known for digging deep inside a lyric and finding something undiscovered or under said. Her own artistic practice has been built on finding and deciphering the coded meaning, the nuances and subtleties of a song as if they were symbols woven in the panels of a quilt. Like Billie Holiday, there is an implicit demand in her music too, be it for love or to be heard, to dance or worship or for us to become better human beings. The explicit demand is also there. When Wilson sings “Strange Fruit,” it is not just protest, she is saying it is unacceptable to have to revisit those lyrics today when they were first performed by Holiday in 1939.
The title Coming Forth by Day is from ancient Kemetic (Egyptian) text regarding life, death and after-life and served as a source for contemplation. The two-year long process of creating this album was both musical and spiritual and began in earnest with Wilson’s deepened understanding that Holiday’s message still resonates. Wilson discovered the often obscured power of Holiday’s life and the triumphant quality of her musical legacy as evidence of a journey of purpose, empowerment and enduring victory instead of the usual depiction of her as tragic victim.
As we remember and celebrate the great talent and contribution of Billie Holiday, we have the good fortune to also anticipate the constant surprises that Cassandra Wilson shares with us. Coming Forth by Day is full of surprises and is one of Wilson’s most remarkable recordings in a career filled with remarkable recordings.
Michael Simanga is a visiting lecturer at Georgia State University in the Department of African American Studies. He is the author of Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People: History and Memory and was executive producer of Cassandra Wilson’s album Belly of the Sun.