Music and Black Movement in Three Biographical Movies Lady Sings the Blues, Bird and Ray

By Indah Lestari

This paper attempts to look at the importance of music as part of Black identity. The movies chosen for this purpose are based on the biography of black singer and musicians. Lady Sings the Blues (1972) is about Billie Holiday, Bird (1988) Charlie Parker and Ray (2004) Ray Charles. The artists lived in relatively the same period and in some points of time in their life had tensions with their race. Their life is inseparable from music and a probe into music would allow us to see the social life in American Jim Crow era. Music has the capacity to reveal the contradictions within society by communicating to the listeners a connection to the real world.

The three artists discussed in this paper are active in Black music genres, particularly jazz and blues. Blues is deeply rooted in American history, especially African American history. It is originated in Southern plantations in the 19th century. It was invented by slaves, ex-slaves and their descendants. They sang in the cotton fields while working. It is mostly regarded as evolving from American spiritual songs, work songs and field hollers, blending rural life and percussion. They improvised the call-and-response method and put it in American context.

Black music in 20th century is an appropriation of Western music elements. Blues and jazz are interconnected. Blues nourished in Mississippi Delta, near the birth town of jazz, New Orleans, which was then the center of American slave trade. Blues then grew into Rhythm ‘n Blues (R&B) and rock ‘n roll, while jazz has cause a lot of subgenres to spring from it, such as bebop, Bossa nova and acid jazz.

One of the foremost female jazz singers in American music history is Billie Holiday or Lady Day. She was born by a real name of Eleanora Fagan on April 17, 1915 and died in 1959 of drug overdose. In relation to black movement, Holiday is mainly identified with her song “Strange Fruit”. The song bitterly tells about a black body hanging in a tree as if it is the tree’s fruit. It was premiered in a New York club in 1938. The lyric goes the following:

Southern trees bear strange fruits
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouthd
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
 

The song was brought about when she was on a big-band bus tour and witnessed a lynching of two blacks, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The lyric was adapted from a 1937 poem by Jewish schoolteacher and poet in New York, Abel Meeropol (pen name, Lewis Allan). The image of a person hanging in a tree in the poem is literally depicted in the movie. Holiday herself (starred by famous black singer Diana Ross) sees this person, though there is no sufficient data to tell whether this happened in her real life. So we can see the politics of the movie—which is based on the book by Holiday and William Dufty—by blending facts and fiction in highlighting black struggle.

The song « Strange Fruit » is difficult to categorize, either by the music or the lyric. It is “too artsy to be folk music, too explicitly political and polemical to be jazz”[i]. At that time the civil rights movement was not at its peak. As the song was then regarded controversial, Holiday’s record company Columbia did not release it, and a smaller label Commodore took it. It is now one of Holiday’s signature songs.

Around the same time as the premiere of “Strange Fruit”, Holiday joined swing pianist Count Basie in 1937 and clarinetist Artie Shaw a year later, becoming one of the first black singer featured with a white orchestra. In the movie, among all the band members, all white, Holiday did not face racial discrimination. In fact she is treated like a lady. When a band member is complaining about not being featured by some radio station and started cursing, Harry says, “Watch your mouth. Can’t you see there’s a lady present?” This means she is respected, not as a black, or merely a woman, but a (white) lady. There is also an interesting line when Harry  says « let’s face it Billie, you are the cream in our coffee.” So the logic of the colors is reversed, Billie is the ‘white’ while the men are the ‘(black) coffee’.

The movie starts in New York in 1936 when Holiday is jailed on drug charge. In black and white picture and horror music, the audience can see how Holiday was ill-treated by the white (female) officers, for example her hair pulled and she is pushed into a cushion-walled chamber. As the movie shows the credits, the picture stops repeatedly and depicts the photography of the violence. This scene goes in film noir mood, strong contrast of black and white, and horror-jazz soundtrack. Certainly the black-and-white color can be interpreted as the juxtaposition of the blacks and whites of America, how they interact, clash, and mingle with each other.

From one club to another the viewers can see how Holiday’s career in singing is rising. In her first job in a cheap club, like any other singer, she is supposed to take the tip from the guests with her thighs or keep it in her cleavage. Her costume is as if designed for that, bright red with high cut in the middle to her thighs. The guests are mocking her because she could not take the money, not until a man, Louis McKay, whom she seems to have a crush on, puts forth a bill. Although her stretch of voice is limited, she sings like a jazz instrumentalist, lengthening and shortening phrases. With warm voice she equips the lyrics with sadness, sensuality and irony. She is also famous for singing a little behind the beat, which was followed by later generations of vocalists. The journey of a year of her career in that club is represented in the movie by some sepia pictures, of which in some she stands in front of the club with a poster by her name.

Then Holiday is approached by two white men, Harry and Reg, requesting her to join their band in a tour. She thinks they are joking, saying “a colored singer with a white band?” She joined them and their first destination is ‘the South’. On their stop to have lunch, the music is country music. Country music or Western music or cowboy songs was found in Southern United States. Here we can see the application of Jim Crow laws, where the bar does not allow blacks to enter. Holiday just stands outside while the other band members are eating. Reg goes outside and shouts that she “ain’t missing a thing” as if to soothe her. Here the discrimination is not shown full frontal in the movie, not a subtext. In Bird, Charlie Parker plans to go on tour with his band to the South—Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. But the band’s comment is, “Deep south with a mixed band? We’ll get lynched!” Mixed band refers to one of the band’s members, who is a Jew. Parker undercuts the whole system of race and takes it for his own advantage.

Still in the South in the trip they meet Ku Klux Klan rallying in the street, bearing white supremacy and pro-slavery posters saying, for example ‘Free Passage to Africa’. This is one of the scariest moments, when the white-hooded people see Holiday, a negro, in the bus, break the glasses and try to hurt or even kill her. Meanwhile, she refuses to hide and instead keeps cursing them. We can read her anger as a representation of the black people in America who are oppressed by racial discrimination. She does not care of risking her life, under the threat of the dangerous organization. She could only spontaneously and emotionally convey her hatred against KKK, or racists in general. She is not featured in a Network Radio program either, she missed the slot because of two white ladies. Holiday only comments that the reason must be because the radio people want them to sell soaps, while black people, with no “bright complexion… [or] pretty white hands” do not use it. She could have been featured in the radio because skin color would not be seen, in the radio people only listen to the voice. But a man in the station is arguing with the stakeholder about her. So to be featured in a radio, although your skin color is not mention, will have a direct impact on your career.

But skin color does not matter in terms of taking drugs. Drugs did not choose its victim by the skin color. Harry finally influences Holiday to take shots and she becomes an addict. This is shown in her performance, for example she almost faints on stage, or she forgets some lyrics. She could also lose the love of McKay, who warns her since the beginning. After singing the song “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, she is faced with a dilemma between taking a shot of drugs and visiting her sick mother at the hospital. Taking drugs may be her free choice, not to say that she cannot control it, but she is not there with her mother when the latter dies. It is a similar scene in Bird when Parker’s daughter, Pree, is really sick, and he is very intoxicated. He is with another woman and cannot be at his wife’s side. He can only send telegram of his condolences.

And skin color does not mean anything for Holiday in order to perform at the “top spot” prestigious Carnegie Hall. It is a concert hall in Midtown Manhattan. Although as her agent says, she does not sing operas, she would perform there with her own style, and that is jazz. The movie finishes with the Carnegie Hall scene where the audience is clapping loudly for the lady who sings her blues. A happy ending. The movie does not tell the viewers that the real Billie Holiday died at the age of 44 because of her drug addiction problem.

Drug is also a central theme in the other two movies. Charles Parker also died of overdose, even younger than Holiday. Not only drugs, both Bird and Ray, also portray Parker’s and Ray Charles’ relation with many women. As a biographical film, Bird also depicts three-dimensional view of the character, Charles Parker both on- and off-stage. But unlike LSTB, this movie shows the growth of the artist’s skill—his failures, his experiments, and his success with his horn. In LSTB, the songs sung by Holiday are not chronological. They merely stand for the theme of her life story at certain points of time. In Ray, drug is Ray Charles’ temporary means to escape from his physical disability. He feels that hiss life is “null and void”. Being blind, Ray Charles can actually manage to survive without the help of a walking stick or a dog because he has a good memory and sharp senses. He trains himself, due to his mother’s teachings, and he does not want to be pitied. Toward the end of the movie, he realizes his mother’s advice, “never let nobody or nothing turn [him] into no cripple”. Taking drugs actually makes him a cripple, so he finally stops doing it.

Another aspect to be compared among the movies is the artists’ close relationship with the whites: Holiday and the white band, while Parker and his wife Chan as well as his colleague ‘Albino Red’. Chan could understand the creativity within Parker as her childhood was spent in Westchester, where her father owned a club. Red Rodney, the Albino, is actually not completely ‘white’ because he is a Jew, a minority in American society. Ray portrays the artist’s encounters with white people, some are racists and some not. In the beginning of the movie, Ray enters a building where a country band is rehearsing. He is not deliberately insulted for being blind, but a white man supposes that he can only play “boogie-woogie”, or dance music.

But Ray Charles’ most significant encounter with the Jim Crow laws is in 1961 in Augusta, Georgia. In the state, negroes were persecuted everyday. When he and the band arrive, there are people carrying posters demanding segregation abolishment. A journalist tells Ray Charles that the dance floor is only for the whites while the negroes have to stay in the balcony. He replies that he is merely an entertainer. But after being convinced that he can make a difference, he decides to leave the place. This is a victory for all blacks in America. Music is indeed for everybody, but the audience must be able to enjoy it freely, without any boundary. Eighteen years later, in 1979, at Georgia State Capitol, “Georgia on My Mind” is declared the official song of the State. Ray Charles “changed American culture by touching people’s hearts”. The American people accept the fact that black people is part of their society. They live on the same land and they are all equal citizens.

Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker is known as the icon of jazz subgenre Bebop, as he collaborated with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Parker is an alto saxophonist born on August 29, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas. Parker’s peak of career was in mid ‘40s. In the early 1940s, jazz musicians were looking for new directions to explore. Bebop is characterized with its “complicated chord patterns, dazzling phrases, difficult intervals and unexpected breaks.”[ii] Big bands of swing music shifted to bebop, from dance music to an art form. No longer were there huge big bands, but smaller groups that did not play for dancing audiences but for listening audiences. Parker experimented with chord progressions, faster tempos, higher notes and more dissonant tones. The movie Bird (starring Forest Whitaker) shows the ups and downs of Parker’s career. He is struggling with inventing his music while his lifestyle, especially drug abuse, is clouding him. For example, in winter 1946 in California, he had to be hospitalized due to unfamiliar surrounding; audience response to new sounds; and police crackdown on narcotics, as the report says.

From cinematic perspective, I would say that Bird is better compared to LSTB. Besides acting, Bird is also better in terms of narrative technique. Unlike LSTB which has linear plot in general, Bird utilizes non-linear plot. There are also devices of repetition to show Parker’s dark imagination. For example, a recurring image in the movie is a cymbal being thrown to the floor. This refers to when young Parker who never plays with somebody famous, does badly and the drummer has to throw a cymbal in order to stop him. This embarrassing moment is repressed in his subconscious and may be one of the causes of his self-destruction. Another depressive image evoked in the movie is a dream when young Parker is in a morgue. A man who looks like a doctor, who claims to be “worse than a prophet” pulls a drawer and shows him a dead body. He gives him, based on his experience, only 18 to 20 years of living considering Parker’s drug habit.

But among the three movies, I find Ray, directed by Taylor Hackford, more entertaining and less gloomy. It also employs repetition of scene especially to evoke the trauma Ray Charles (starred by Jamie Foxx) of witnessing his brother’s death. This trauma causes him to suffer from glaucoma and further lose his sight. The plot goes back and forth in time. The distinctive quality between the present and the past of Ray Charles is the color. In the present time, the colors are natural, while for Ray’s childhood, very vivid. This method works well as we bear in mind that he becomes blind at the age of seven. So everything that he sees in the past is as if more memorable, especially the image of colorful bottles hanging in some twigs, which occurs twice in the movie.

« If you really understand the meaning of bebop, you understand the meaning of freedom, » says pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. Bebop is identical to freedom as its core is improvisation, freedom to play tunes. Parker became the first modern jazz soloist by November 1949. Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Christian are called bebop or proto-bebop musicians. Parker’s blowing is very fast, and he has the sense to appropriate other kinds music into jazz. He is best known for his ability to play rests (an interval of silence in a specific duration). He could suspend the time by making tantalizing statements. Playing with silence was one of his great skills. Yet, he never overplayed it. Only sometimes he overdid astonishing cadenza runs, almost like 100 notes to a bar[iii]. Jazz gives identity for black Americans. Parker and Gillespie in the early 1940s were a rupture in the society. Gillespie says in the movie that he is a reformer. They invented something for the young, yet a disturbance for the old, or those who danced over jazz. Moreover, bebop’s relation with international world is dialectic. It draws upon European art music tradition and Parker, among others, took freely this tradition. He brings jazz to the level of European art music through appropriation and assimilation of modernist European art music[iv]. On concerts in Europe and other countries, Parker does not only bring the name of black Americans, but Americans in general.

However, as we have already seen Holiday’s bound with drugs, Parker’s self destruction leads to his grave. In the movie, Parker is not only addicted to drugs, but also takes poison to kill himself, and involves himself in a fight. His attitude can be interpreted as, Gillespie says, “trying to be a martyr”. This theme of being a martyr is also supported by the movie’s ending, that is the death of Parker. The denouement of the movie is the decline of Parker’s existence. He has to drive to a gig in Chicago as nobody would pay for his air tickets. He is infamous for his lack of reliability as he often misses gigs. Back in New York, the neighborhood has changed, all jazz bars have been turned into strip joints. R&B has changed into rock ‘n roll. Parker goes to Baroness Nica’s place, heavily intoxicated. When he dies, a reporter says Parker has a heart attack and his age is 65 (he was actually 34). So the movie romanticizes the figure of Charlie Parker, turning him into a symbolic figure. He becomes a martyr of bebop.

In LSTB, Billie Holiday has become a cult figure. This is because the last song in the movie is “God Bless the Child”. The lyric implies that the child is a separate entity, not depending on the father or the mother. But in the context of Holiday’s life, the song shows a mixture of innocence and guilt. She is like confessing her sins. On the other hand, there is a tone of being grateful to God for her talent. She was finally at the top. Black music is also a marker of blackness, it has become a cultural product that is linked to African tradition especially slavery era. Black music is affiliated with “its soulfulness, its depth of feeling or ‘realness,’ its emotional and rhythmic energy, its vocally informed instrumental inflections”[v] are born out of the pain of social life that is formed as an urge to end racial discrimination. So it speaks in two voices: creative and political.

In Seattle in 1947, in a club, “a place where the sophisti-cats and hipsters hang their bebop hats,” we meet Ray Charles. Ray is both a musician and a singer. His music comprises many genres, but he is mostly associated with soul music. Soul became enormously popular among both black and white audiences beginning in the late ’50s. It evolved until the 1970s. Some view soul as merely a new term for rhythm and blues. Actually a new generation reinterpreted the sounds of R&B, including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Sam Cooke. Later James Brown became the ‘Godfather of Soul’. In 1955 Ray Charles’s breakthrough in soul music is the song “I’ve Got a Woman”. He invented this new genre by secularizing certain aspects of gospel music (chord changes, song structures, call and response techniques, and vocal screams, wails, and moans) and adding blues-based lyrics[vi]. Soul then transformed into what became known as rock and roll. The power and personality of Soul were taken by disco, funk and hip-hop styles[vii]. In the movie, we can see how controversial soul is then when Ray Charles is accused of “turning god’s music into sex” when performing “Hallelujah I Love Her So”.

Ray Charles emerged as a blues and jazz pianist, but his character was indebted to Nat King Cole in the late 1940s, as we can hear in “Mess Around”. After “I’ve Got a Woman”, his song “What’d I Say” topped the R&B sale charts in 1959. He also became popular among jazz fans, performing a set at the 1958 Newport Jazz festival in 1959. He also entered the pop market with best-sellers “Georgia on My Mind”, “Unchain My Heart” and “Hit the Road, Jack” (1961). He even tried country music and recorded Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962), which was sold for more than one million copies.

All the movies are not just about music. They depict the artists’ struggle with life, of which race is an inherent part. Each artist had his or her own way to cope with racialism while pursuing their career. Music becomes a means to convey their feelings and thoughts, and in the end also influences larger society. Music as Black identity is a vehicle for the Black Movement in its greater sense. The movies to a certain level also promote this through cinematic devices.


[i] Margolick, David. “Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” in Nytimes.com

[ii] Dyson, Michael Eric, “What would America be like without 60 years of Black contributions” , EBONY Nov 2005 p. 175

[iii] Ulanov, Barry. “Jazz: Issues of Identity” in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Apr. 1979), p. 253

[iv] Smethurst, James Edward. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.2005. University of North Carolina Press, p. 271.

[v] Radano, Ronald Michael. Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music. 2003. University of Chicago Press, p. xii.

[vii] “soul music.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2010.

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