Billie Holiday’s New York: Here’s to Swing Street, Harlem’s 133rd Street and other landmarks of jazz

Courtesy Columbia Records

 

PODCAST Grab your fedora and take a trip with the Bowery Boys into the heart of New York City’s jazz scene — late nights, smoky bars, neon signs — through the eyes of one of the greatest American vocalists who ever lived here — Billie Holiday.

Eleanora Fagan walked out of Pennsylvania Station in 1929 and into the city that would help make her a superstar. Her early years were bleak, arrested for prostitution and thrown into the Welfare Island workhouse. But music would be her savior, breaking out in Harlem first in the nightclubs on 133rd Street, then in the basement clubs of ‘Swing Street’ on 52nd Street.

Her recordings make her an international star, but the venues of New York helped solidify her talents — from the Apollo Theater to Carnegie Hall. But one particular club in the West Village would provide her with a signature song, one that reflected the horrible realities of racism in the mid 20th century.

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The Bowery Boys #176: Billie Holiday’s New York

Billie Holiday at Club Downbeat, 1947

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Locations featured in this episode:

1) Pennsylvania Station (circa 1930s-40s)

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

2) Jefferson Market Courthouse, pictured here in 1935

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Photographed by Berenice Abbott, courtesy New York Public Library

 

3) Welfare Island, pictured here in 1931

Photographed by Samuel H Gottscho, courtesy Museum of City of New York

 

4) 133rd Street — “Jungle Alley” or The Street — outside Connie’s Inn

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

5) Apollo Theater, pictured here in the mid 1940s

Courtesy Library of Congress, photographer William Gottlieb
Courtesy Library of Congress, photographer William Gottlieb

 

6) Lincoln Hotel

Hotel Lincoln, 44th to 45th Street at 8th Avenue New York City
Hotel Lincoln, 44th to 45th Street at 8th Avenue New York City

7) Billie Holiday at Cafe Society 1939

Photo by Charles B. Nadell
Photo by Charles B. Nadell

8) 52nd Street aka Swing Street

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Billie at Club Downbeat (with her dog Mister) — June 1946

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

9) Town Hall, sometime in the 1940s

Exterior view of The Town Hall, courtesy New York Public Library
Exterior view of The Town Hall, courtesy New York Public Library

10) Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall for her rave 1948 concert

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

 

An extraordinary performance of ‘Strange Fruit’, performed in February 1959, months before she died. This was recorded for a British television show called ‘Chelsea At Nine’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

 

Billie Holiday — playing a maid — in the 1947 film New Orleans

 

And a live performance of one of her greatest songs — well, really, one of the greatest songs — “God Bless The Child”

http://youtu.be/U-3O-X6UUpY