This week Billie Holiday would have turned 100. The influential jazz singer, known for her unique vocal style and the emotional chords she struck with her audience, is buried at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx (you won’t find Duke Ellington or Miles Davis there — they’re both at Woodlawn — but you might run across Typhoid Mary.) While Holiday had a vocal range of less than an octave and never received formal training, her emotive delivery and unique approach to rhythm and phrasing resonated with audiences.
The singer’s life was fraught with hardship and ended tragically when she was just 44 but she left an indelible mark on America’s musical landscape.
Lady Day famously premiered her version of “Strange Fruit,” the haunting indictment of Southern lynchings, at Café Society. She also performed at the Apollo Theater and lived in Harlem for much of her adult life. A singer who calls herself Billie Holiday Jr still performs at the Cotton Club. While we strongly recommend you tune in to hear Cassandra Wilson sing Billie Holiday and check out this more in-depth podcast on her time in the Big Apple, we’ve rounded up a couple of Holiday-inspired eats and drinks.
Holiday made performing sound easy. Once she said, “singing songs like ‘The Man I Love” or “Porgy” is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck.” Where could Billie have found her favorite food in Harlem today? Our writer Emma Cosgrove recommends Cecil: a James Beard Award-nominated spot that serves “global flavors through an African lens.” Their whole roast duck for two, served with black bean barbecue sauce and house made pickles, would certainly have pleased Lady Day.
Holiday’s favorite cocktail was called the Stinger; it mixes 2 ounces of Cognac with 1 of crème de menthe. She liked it so much that her manager started calling venues ahead of time to tell them to get rid of those two ingredients.
So raise a glass to celebrate the musical genius of Billie Holiday, an amazingly independent and fiery woman who probably would’ve appreciated with a toast in her memory: “You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.”
Featured photo credit: Wikimedia Commons