I remember sitting in my basement with Paul Hoeffler, not with jazz in the background, but the annoying sound of my scanner, as we were working our way through stacks of photographs of Billie Holiday. Bowmore 12 was the poison of choice. The stories flowed, as did the single malt. We were scanning images of Billie Holiday for the now legendary Burns series Jazz.
We scanned many photographs of the legendary singer, but what I find most interesting in hindsight was maybe the contact sheets. I have reproduced 1 below. The sheet was not the greatest, in terms of quality, but you have to admire the degree of access. Don’t forget, this is while Billie Holiday is on stage, singing. She is a Superstar, with a capital ‘S’ in Jazz terms, yet she is no more than a couple of feet in front of Paul’s lens, maybe less. I might even forgive her for forgetting a line, when you have a camera in your face like that! You can read Paul’s recollection here:
“ ‘Lady Day’ as she was known, died the summer of 1959. She was in a NYC hospital – arrested for drug possession – two detectives stationed at the door. Billie Holiday was 44 years old. She has been described as a ‘simple woman with a gift’.
These photographs were taken during her week-long engagement at the Ridge Crest Inn, Rochester, New York. I was in Rochester studying at R.I.T., and covering the music and musicians. These images represent a fraction of those taken; the contact sheets show a radiant Billie, then the next frame displays a troubled and confused singer having forgotten the words.
Twice, or three times, I drove Billie, her husband and Alice Vrbsky back to their hotel. Alice was Billie’s close friend, seen here putting on her coat and wearing glasses. Alice tried to keep Billie in a responsible state. Peppi, Billies little white dog, was always along. Peppi was the substitute for the child she never had.
What I saw was a very troubled woman, angry at social injustices, burdened by alcohol and drugs, and not able to steer clear of the bad actors – the men, the lovers.
Billie Holiday had a strong presence. She was vulgar, basic, with a natural ability to make music, which touched many, many people. It still continues to reach out today.”
I don’t think anyone, other than maybe Paul himself has seen the contact sheet below. I scanned it for him, as we were working our way through the stack of prints that would be scanned and forwarded to Ken Burns. I have been hesitating to show it, but I think it is a reminder of what Paul always talked about; the good old days before the goons, or should I say security guards, the publicists, the official photographers, and the hoards of long lens paparazzi.
And finally, below, something that Paul did, but was much less known for. A colour image from the same set. Yes, he could do that too.