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For Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth


“Esteemed music scholar Szwed (Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, 2010, etc.) offers a portrait of Lady Day as artist and mythmaker rather than tragic victim. More than any other vocal artist of her era, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) continues to capture the attention of historians and critics. The grim details of her life are, by now, well-known: how she emerged from a background of poverty and prostitution and, for the remainder of her years, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, abusive relationships, and racism. Szwed does not gloss over these facts, but neither does he dwell on them, instead centering his account on Holiday’s enigmatic persona and its relationship to her art. He calls the book a “meditation” on Holiday rather than a strict biography and assumes that readers will have some familiarity with her life story. The first part of the book, “The Myth,” is a fragmentary but detailed exploration of how Holiday’s persona developed outside of her recordings, focusing on her controversial autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (especially what was edited out of the manuscript) along with her film and TV appearances. The second part, “The Musician,” which takes up more than half the book, is an erudite blend of cultural history and musical insight that examines the historical context of Holiday’s career, placing her in a lineage of female singers that reaches back to the 19th century. Szwed also takes a close look at Holiday’s innovative vocal approach, reminding us that although she had no formal training, she possessed a remarkable gift for improvisation and interpretation, often reshaping melodies to the extent that she essentially rewrote them according to her own idiosyncratic visions. As with the best of Holiday’s music, this elegant and perceptive study is restrained, nuanced, and masterfully carried out.” —Kirkus Reviews

For Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World

[A starred review] “Factually tireless and fluently analytical, Szwed gamely corrals a great river of events, efforts, and discoveries into a straight-ahead portrait of an intrepid, culture-defining artist and humanist.” —Booklist

“Szwed is a sensitive interpreter of music… he is meticulous about the work, and makes a strong case for Lomax as a central figure in the history of American music.” —The New Yorker

“A keenly appreciative, enormously detailed new Lomax biography.” —New York Times

“John Szwed has written a graceful and informative cradle-to-grave study that’s a perfect marriage of author and subject.” —Douglas Brinkley, Texas Monthly

“Szwed admirably captures the efforts of a man who seemed determined to honor what came before him.” —The Washington Post

“An informative, compelling and magnificent biography.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

Szwed’s biography is a worthy testament to Lomax’s passions and ideals, which gifted the world some of the most important American recordings ever made.” —New Staesman

“John Szwed’s biography is meticulous, measured and finely detailed… essential reading.” —Irish Times

“In capturing his multifaceted life, Szwed has succeeded in the kind of Herculean task that his subject would have tacked with relish” —Times of London

“[Szwed] records Lomax’s life much as Lomax recorded musicians on field trips, taking care to present the man and his achievements in their social, political and intellectual context.… [he] succeeds magnificently.” —Financial Times

“***** An absorbing portrait of a fascinating life — whether or not you give two figs about folk music. —TimeOut London

“Szwed captures Lomax with all his contradictions intact, refusing to tidy him up.” —Los Angeles Times

“Szwed does a bang-up job… The author expertly weaves together the contradictions of Lomax himself… while also chronicling a century of political and social change through the prism of song.… This lovingly-presented tome offers the perfect tribute.” —Record Collector

Szwed’s insight into the personal dynamics of [Lomax’s] principles weaves what could have been a dry, academic, musicology tome into a sweeping drama populated by compelling characters, lively settings and — of course — all that great music.” —American Songwriter

“Szwed’s deeply researched biography brings Lomax to life and illustrates that our understanding of American music would not be the same without his contributions to the study of American folklore.” —Library Journal

“Required reading.” —New York Post

Book of the Week.” —The Guardian

“Editor’s Choice: “One of the great books of the brand new year.” —Buffalo News

“Szwed delineates Lomax’s work down to the last detail… Lomax emerges as a brilliant, driven and often conflicted man who revolutionized the study of folk music.” —Kirkus

For So What: The Life of Miles Davis

“…Szwed offers crisply detailed backstories to such masterpieces as Sketches of Spain, Round About Midnight and Miles Ahead. His prose has a musical pulse, and he highlights the most significant element of Davis’s soul: “he told every woman he became involved with that music always came first, before family, children, lovers, friends.” Davis’s music has been called a “divine disease,” and this in-depth study clarifies the nature of that compulsive, satisfying malady in a way that will enlighten listeners and musicians.”

—Publishers Weekly

For Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra

“…Szwed has produced a rare jazz biography–one that takes full account of the history that shaped the music and its central personalities. An anthropologist, historian and musicologist who teaches at Yale, Szwed brings an impressive array of skills to this job. He needs them all to track down a subject whose every word seems intended to protect him from scrutiny.”

—Brent Staples, The New York Times Book Review