In the opening of “Ladies Day,” columnist Gary Giddins’s essay in the Village Voice about the Billie Holiday boxed set Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles, he asks, “How many Billie Holidays are there and which do you prefer?” The question refers to the extremities in Holiday’s tumultuous career and personal life. She led a bipolar existence that both confounded the emotions of loved ones and engrossed the imaginations of listeners, and vice versa. Holiday was a star — a different someone to each person — but in classic fashion she could barely control her own life. Though she came to the industry at the tender age of eighteen, she arrived carrying several lifetimes of pain. Yet the industry seemed intent on consuming her at a breakneck pace. Drawn and quartered, everyone wanted to have a piece of Lady Day.
One of Holiday’s areas of genius was her ability to transform such demand into the most tempting fruit, as evidenced on Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles. The abbreviated four-disc version of 2001’s Grammy-award winning, ten-disc Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) boxed set pulls many of the key tracks and sessions from the previous set, thus offering a quick snapshot of the rapid development in the early part of her art and career.
Master Takes begins in 1935 with her Teddy Wilson sides, where she was already accompanied by A-list talent like Benny Goodman and Ben Webster, but more than half of the box is devoted to records under her own name from early 1939 to 1942. Which is fortunate, because these are the tracks that place Holiday front and center. As such, there is a share of hits: Gershwin, Porter, Beriln, and even the (apparently jazz-hating) Jerome Kern. These stand in contrast to the earlier Wilson sides, where she is treated as a side person and buried deep in the record to contribute solely to the chorus and bridge. However, even on the by-the-numbers bits, Holiday has a way of transforming the record into an absolute gem. Thus, 1935’s “I Wished on a Moon” lazily opens the boxed set with a standard thirty-two bars of instrumental opening before Holiday uses her verse to set the song a flight. As a whole, this varied collection offers a fascinating look into Holiday’s brisk development.