Giant Steps: Jazz Greats
William P. Gottlieb, from the Library of Congress Collection
Rising from a difficult and often traumatic childhood in working-class Baltimore, Billie Holiday went on to become one of the most influential jazz singers of all time, and arguably the greatest. Discovered at age eighteen, Holiday's unique sound, innovative timing, and deeply emotional performances made her a powerful and creative force in jazz. Nicknamed "Lady Day" by her friend the alto saxophone player Lester Young while singing with the Count Basie Orchestra, Holiday ultimately became most famous not for her work with big bands, but for smaller lounge acts that allowed her to showcase the subtle tones of her voice and her preference for slow tempos. Haunted throughout her life by drug addiction and the racism encountered both while touring in the Jim Crow South and when performing with white bands in New York, Holiday used her music as an outlet for her own suffering and as a means for protest. Her song "Strange Fruit," a protest against the lynching rampant in the South throughout her lifetime, became a signature piece she performed in almost every performance. This photograph was taken by William P. Gottlieb in 1947, one year before Holiday performed for a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall in New York.