Jazz legend and Baltimore native Billie Holiday. (Courtesy Photo)
An event highlighting the life and work of jazz legend and Baltimore native Billie Holiday, from 5:30-8 p.m. April 7, will commemorate what would have been her 100th birthday. The presentation and activities will be held at the Leonard E. Hicks Multipurpose Community Center, located at 2718 West North Ave. in Baltimore.
“Billie was really loved here,” said Marvin L. ‘Doc’ Cheatham Sr., who is organizing the event with the Matthew A.Henson Neighborhood Association. “We were a really strong jazz city.”
The group created a special video of Holiday’s performances and a presentation about her life. Posters and a wax figure of the singer from the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore will also be on display.
Holiday got her start on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of theaters where Black artists could perform for Black audiences. She often performed at the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue. “She’s just an icon here. It’s just a love and admiration society, and I’m one of them,” Cheatham said. He said that although Holiday is no longer here (she died in New York in 1959, at the age of 44), the event will not be a sad one.
“We want to make it like a celebration,” he said, “celebrating her life.”
According to Dr. Joanne Martin, founder and president of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, this city is in a kind of three-way tug-of-war with Philadelphia and New York for bragging rights over the singer, as she spent a considerable amount of time in all three places. However, she was born in Baltimore on April 7, 1915.
Martin said the figure of Holiday being display at the event has been at the museum since 1988. She said that it is important to have the Holiday statue and highlight her work, because Holiday’s talent and contributions to Black history are sometimes overshadowed by the darker parts of her past.
According to her New York Times obituary, the singer was born to a 13-year-old mother and 15-year-old father. Martin said Holiday was the victim of sexual assault when she was very young. As an adult, she was known almost as much for her repeated brushes with the law for narcotics possession as she was for her beautiful singing voice.
“She had a very tragic life in many ways . . . it is reflected in Holiday’s music,” Martin said.
“I don’t feel that she’s ever really gotten the attention that she’s due. In terms of jazz and blues, she is very much respected. But young people don’t know her. People who do know about her want to talk about her drug use.”
She said that Holiday’s songs are still very much relevant today.
At the museum, she said they often use character actors to help educate visitors, and they have one who helps bring Holiday to life by singing her most iconic song, ‘Strange Fruit.’
“Teachers really need to use ‘Strange Fruit’ as a resource,” she said. “Even though she wasn’t the author of the song, she brings power and meaning to that song that never would have had the same impact as words on the page.”
The event is free, but attendees must RSVP. Cheatham said that the video and posters used in the event would be available for other groups who wish to learn about Holiday’s legacy. Learn more by going to www.mahna.com or calling 410-669-8683.