Wednesday, February 20, 2013
By DaMaris Hill
Although many outstanding jazz instrumentalists were women, the work of Angela Davis, Tammy Kernodle, Sherrie Tucker, Farah Griffin and Meta DuEwa Jones indicate that many of the contributions of women musicians were suppressed in the jazz community and music history.
Fortunately, the contributions of women jazz vocalists, like Billie Holiday, were noted. Holiday’s vocal range in terms of octaves. But her abilities to master and subvert musical timing made her an outstanding percussionist. Inspired by Holiday’s abilities to master the illusive rhythms of jazz timing, I question Holiday’s intentions as an artist. Did she seek to be a songbird? I want to consider what it would mean if Holiday sought to be the drum. I recognize Billie Holiday as one of the female jazz artists that evoked djembe like qualities.
Mimicking the fluid rhythm of the djembe, Holiday paces the jazz ensemble, creating harmony and dissonances in context of percussive timing. In this way she uses her body as a drum; she blends the past, present, and possibility of time and rhythm. In previous research, I refer to this ability as rhythmic fluidity. “She instinctively knew what was the right thing – how to balance faster rhythm with slower. I always looked to Billie as a finished performer, a pro.”
Holiday’s vocal instrument also fulfilled the functions of the djembe drum in American culture. In her recording of "Strange Fruit," she reclaims and reappropriates the purpose of the djembe drum. In ceremonial acts the djembe drum officiates the call for the community to gather to celebrate or mourn. Similarly, Holiday gathers a community to mourn the men that were lynched during the Jim Crow era. Holiday’s recording and performances of "Strange Fruit" carried the messages about lynching beyond the audiences that read the works of Ida B. Wells and the African American newspapers into America’s popular culture, thus entering the psyche and intimate thoughts of white America and her international audience.
Holiday’s embodying of the djembe is in direct conversation with Sonia Sanchez’s aims as jazz poet and how she uses her instrument, her body, as the djembe.
DaMaris B. Hill is a writer and scholar. She earned a PhD in English-Creative Writing and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Kansas. She is currently serving as Visiting Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.