Celebrate two Jazz Icons: Billie and Sarah

Celebrate two Jazz Icons: Billie and Sarah

Brave Sis #SistoryLesson pays tribute to two great jazz and blues singers, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.

If the name Eleanora Fagan does not ring a bell, perhaps you are more familiar with her stage name, Billie Holiday, who came to our Earth on April 7, 1915 and made one of the most indelible marks on jazz as anyone who has ever sung any standard.

Holiday didn’t just work with the giants, she was a giant: despite a famously small voice with limited range, her extraordinary gifts of styling and improvisation have made her an icon of music for all time. 

Tragically, her voice and life were cut short due to a lifetime of turbulence, addiction, trafficking, and violence—not to mention the pain of being a strong-willed woman in the man’s world of jazz at a time when Black musicians were revered onstage yet banned from the town’s restaurants and hotels. 

You can listen to four versions of the same Holiday song and each one will be different, yet exactly right. But be warned, once you start listening to Lady Day, you may find your playlist stuck on repeat for weeks at a time. 

One example is her signature song, “Strange Fruit”: read along the lyrics while listening for a harrowing history “testimony” about lynching in the first half of 20th-century America.

Known as “Sassy” and “The Divine One,” the sublime jazz singer Sarah Vaughan was born March 27, 1924. Like many greats of the 20th century, she got her start in church, in this instance, a Baptist church in her hometown of Newark, NJ. 

With a distinctively crystalline contralto voice and a signature pert and playful delivery, Vaughan was a trend-defining jazz stylist over five decades. 

To think her career was launched in Harlem’s Apollo Theater when she entered a singing contest on a dare by some friends! She won first place and attracted the interest of jazz legend Billy Eckstine, who soon thereafter sealed her a gig performing along with him, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. And the rest was jazz history. 

Along with Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Day and Sassy are considered the triumvirate of Black American songstresses of the blues/jazz idiom. You can hear their music and discover many other Brave Sis singers on our spotify playlists.