Renowned for making songs her own, Billie Holiday once explained, "I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know." This attitude characterized not only her singing style but her life as well. Having endured a difficult childhood, Holiday moved to New York City in 1927. Intent on fashioning a musical career, she began performing to supplement her meager income as a housemaid. Success onstage led to recording opportunities and, beginning in 1937, a close working relationship with Count Basie's band. Holiday later joined the Artie Shaw Orchestra, becoming one of the first African American singers to headline an all-white band. Despite the stardom she achieved, Holiday suffered various personal crises during the last two decades of her life, several of which were the result of drug and alcohol abuse.
your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out
of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line
to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art.
Jazz musician and saxophonist Charlie ("Bird") Parker was a pioneer of mid-twentieth-century free jazz and later the bebop movement. Parker's deconstruction of traditional jazz melodies allowed him to accelerate and lengthen the individual lines of his solos. This was the musical equivalent of Whitman's breaking of the iambic pentameter line and creating free verse.
Tragically, Parker's career was marked by heavy drug use as he sought to erase the boundary line between the individual and the art.
Arthur Leipzig's portrait shows Sidney Bechet at the legendary New York nightclub Jimmy Ryan's, playing the soprano saxophone, the instrument for which Bechet was most celebrated. Together with Louis Armstrong, he helped to bring New Orleans jazz to the world. Although no less talented, Bechet never attained the popularity that Armstrong achieved in America, in part because of his often bristly personality. Yet critics and fellow musicians recognized his musical genius and respected his commitment to "doing it your own way." As one reviewer wrote in 1919, when Bechet was only twenty-two, his "'own way' is perhaps the highway [on which] the whole world will swing along tomorrow." To Armstrong, his playing was like a "jug full of golden honey." After a lifetime of touring, Bechet moved in 1951 to Paris, where he enjoyed a wide following.
Duke Ellington called Billie Holiday "the essence of cool," a reference to her equipoise in performance. The most influential jazz vocalist of all time, Holiday had a controlled emotional power that transformed even trite ballads into romantic short stories. Born Eleonora Harris and partially raised in a New York City brothel, she crafted a cool vocal style by tempering Bessie Smith’s shouting power with Louis Armstrong’s rhythmic nuance, then honed her craft on the road with the Count Basie Orchestra. Lester Young named her "Lady Day," and in their chamber jazz classics, such as "All of Me," voice and saxophone curl around each other into smoky swirls of late-night yearning. Late in life Holiday, a drug addict and survivor of abusive relationships, sang in a cracked, broken voice that remained true to the jazz practice of self-expression.
Composer/pianist Billy Strayhorn never achieved the celebrity that some other jazz musicians enjoyed in their lifetimes. Nevertheless, his composing and arranging collaboration with Duke Ellington over three decades yielded many of the most memorable compositions in the history of jazz. In fact, Ellington and Strayhorn worked so closely that it was often difficult to determine where one began and the other left off. As Ellington once put it, "Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head."
Among Strayhorn's greatest assets was a solid musical education that included thorough grounding in classical music. Doubtless that training contributed to the remarkably sophisticated character of many of his compositions and the echoes of such composers as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel that can be found in them.
Known popularly as "the divine Sarah" and "Sassy," Sarah Vaughan was regarded as one of the premier female vocalists of her day. She was drawn to music from an early age, and as a youth she studied piano and sang in her church choir. When Vaughan was eighteen, she entered an amateur contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater on a dare and won first prize. This success led to frequent invitations to perform alongside the leading figures in contemporary jazz, including Earl "Fatha" Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billy Eckstein. Adept at bebop improvisation, Vaughan possessed a wonderfully versatile voice that complemented a larger jazz ensemble. By 1950-the year in which Josef Breitenbach created this portrait-she was selling upwards of three million records annually. During this period, a poll in Down Beat magazine named her the top female singer for six consecutive years.
In highly original compositions for the musical stage and the concert hall, George Gershwin captured the vibrant spirit of the jazz age like no other American composer. A precocious talent, Gershwin began writing music in his teens. At twenty-one, he produced his first hit song-"Swanee"-and completed his first Broadway score. His musical-theater credits soon included such hits as Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), and Girl Crazy (1930). In 1924, Gershwin introduced the jazz idiom to the concert hall with his groundbreaking Rhapsody in Blue, a work immediately hailed as a modern classic. His commitment to serious composition continued with his Concerto in F (1925) and An American in Paris (1928), reaching its culmination with the premier of his opera Porgy and Bess in 1935. Gershwin died just two years later, after completing the score for his first Hollywood film, Shall We Dance.
Already well established as musical theater's "fleetest of jazz steppers," Fred Astaire was starring on Broadway in Funny Face when he posed for this image. The dancer-actor would achieve his greatest fame in the 1930s, when he went to Hollywood to make movie musicals and teamed up with Ginger Rogers. Starring together in such confections as The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Shall We Dance, Astaire and Rogers brought a romantic glamour to their films that was uniquely their own, and their silver-screen elegance provided moviegoers with a much-welcomed escape from the gray realities of the Depression. Astaire had a genius for making his dancing seem effortless, but behind the finished performance, he said, were long days of experimenting that often produced "nothing but exhaustion."
By transforming Astaire's signature top hat into a recurring motif, Steichen offers a clever visual reference to his subject's style and sophistication.
Coleman Hawkins transformed the tenor saxophone into one of the signature instruments in jazz. Once regarded as a comic instrument, the saxophone became, in Hawkins's hands, the centerpiece for explorations in this musical tradition. Hawkins first began playing the saxophone at age nine. He moved to New York City in 1923, where he found work with the Fletcher Henderson group. Influenced by trumpeter Louis Armstrong, he pioneered a form of improvisation based on chords rather than melody. By the time he recorded his famous "Body and Soul" in 1939, Hawkins was recognized as the premier saxophonist in jazz and a hero to a new generation of musicians. An international celebrity, he traveled widely in North America and Europe and continued to experiment with his instrument's creative possibilities until his death.
Earl Hines was given the nickname "Fatha" by a Chicago disc jockey in part because of his genial, fatherly personality, but also in tribute to Hines as the progenitor of modern jazz piano. Playing hornlike lines with one hand and chords with the other, Hines elevated the role of the piano as a solo instrument and, in the process, became the most influential jazz pianist of his generation. A church organist as a child, he resettled in 1924 in Chicago, where his playing partners included trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Shortly thereafter, he formed his own big band, which performed regularly at the Grand Terrace Ballroom and toured throughout North America and later Europe and Russia. During the 1940s, when bebop was transforming jazz with its fast tempos and improvisation, Hines's band continued to grow, nurturing new talent that included trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker.
With his instrumental virtuosity, raspy voice, and ebullient personality, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong created an international audience for New Orleans jazz. The trumpeter, singer, and bandleader grew up poor in the red-light district of that city where jazz was born. Moving to Chicago, he soon formed his own band and began producing groundbreaking recordings. For many years, he and his bands toured worldwide. A jovial goodwill ambassador, Armstrong once dedicated a song to England's George VI with the greeting, "This one's for you, Rex." Armstrong's "scat" singing, rhythmic adventurousness, technical brilliance, and virtuoso improvisations made him one of the preeminent shapers of American jazz.
The photographer of this portrait, Anton Bruehl, a leading commercial photographer of his day, created abstract patterns of light and shadow through elaborate lighting designs. This was one of many of his theatrically staged celebrity photographs to appear in Vanity Fair.
Born New Orleans, Louisiana
One of the most influential artists in jazz history, Louis Armstrong learned to play the cornet as an impoverished New Orleans youth. By the early 1920s, he was working in riverboat dance bands when King Oliver hired him to play with his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. Armstrong then struck out on his own, playing with all the leading bands of the era and making the recordings that established him as the first great jazz soloist. He had a formative influence on jazz, both as a solo instrumentalist and as a vocalist, where he was as skilled at scat singing as he was at melody. His larger-than-life personality—instantly recognizable not only on stage but in movies, radio, television, and through cultural diplomacy—made Armstrong a major international figure in the promotion of American popular music.