Billie Holiday, author portrait
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Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday (b. 1915; d. 1959) was perhaps the greatest singer in twentieth century jazz. Her heartfelt phrasing and improvisational skills had a seminal influence on the form. She emerged from a troubled childhood to quick popularity in Harlem nightclubs, followed by commercial recording success. However, after drug problems landed her in prison in 1948, she lost her cabaret license, which meant she couldn't perform in the jazz capital, New York City. This blow compounded problems with her finances, her health, her reputation, and, devastatingly, her voice. Despite a few triumphant comeback performances at Carnegie Hall and some mildly successful recordings, she never fully recovered her standing, and she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959 in a New York hospital—with police stationed at her door to arrest her on another drug bust should she recover. Holiday was the recipient of four Grammy awards—all of them posthumous.