Words for Lady Day

Dexter Gordon's Words for Lady Day, written to DownBeat, September 3, 1959

            For many years I have been doing research on the life of Dexter Gordon with the biography as the goal. Dexter was a dedicated reader of newspapers and magazines as well as books, both classics and thrillers. He wrote vignettes about his life and letters and poems, all of which will be included in Dexter Calling: The Life and Music of Dexter Gordon, forthcoming from University of California Press. The following letter was written by Dexter to DownBeat on the death of Lady Day.

            Billie Holiday was born on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and died on July 17, 1959 in New York City.  She was 44 years old. Dexter Gordon first met Lady Day, as he always called her, when he was with the Billy Eckstine band in 1945. He was 22 years old and he said that the “fast life” he encountered in New York was new to him and he tried his best to keep up with the “hippest people in the world.” He started hanging out with Lady Day until he got fired from the Eckstine band for being late to rehearsals and “out of it.” When the band went to his hometown of Los Angeles, he was replaced by Budd Johnson which he considered one of the low points in his career.

            In the 1950s, Dexter was “stuck” in California because of his use of drugs. At the time of Lady Day’s death, he was in Chino Prison, a minimum security experimental prison where he played in the band, was the librarian, and the softball team coach. The note from the editor at the end of Dexter’s letter in the “chords and discords” section of DownBeat reads: Tenor saxophonist Gordon’s long letter is printed almost intact because of its summation of the feeling of countless persons, friends and fans, on the death of Billie Holiday. His outrage at her treatment is shared by all of us.

  Here is Dexter’s letter:

“My mother was 15, my father 18, and I was three years old when they got married.” So says Lady Day in her book, Lady Sings the Blues.

But today Lady sings the blues no more.

Tragedy surrounded Billie Holiday as an octopus surround its victim with its tentacles…(But) she wore it, tragedy, like a cloak of honor.

Even in the songs she sang, pathos reared its sentient head. The theme was invariably one of misuse: “My man, he beats me, too.” “Jim never brings me pretty flowers.” “Lover man, some day he’ll come and he’ll dry all my tears.” The heart-rending Gloomy Sunday, and Strange Fruit. Happy songs, you ask? Sure, she sang them, but even these had an aura of gloom.

Lady sang out for all the world to bear witness to the suffering of womankind. Moreover, men and women both received her message. Someone I know, very dear to me, while suffering in a hospital, heard repeatedly in her delirium the voice of Billie Holiday—her only consolation.

After entering the hospital and being put on the critical list for complications, Billie was said to have been found with a bundle of heroin by a nurse, who was “happening by.” From this, I deduce she was still fighting for her life. However, after the police, the notoriety, the inevitable court hassle to follow, she seems to have given up, and unlike old generals, just faded away. This, to me, is a sad note of our times, our society, in which something as heinous as this is allowed to happen. A thinking person can denote many other intangibles in a situation such as this.

…Billie’s contribution will always be near, for many singers carry her style on today. One vocalist in particular not only sings like her, but snaps her fingers, taps her feet, holds her head to one side like Lady Day. Lady’s voice, while very sophisticated, was coarse, soft, yet earthy. Her style and delivery were unique, all her own. The contribution she made in the American art form, jazz, was infinite and immeasurable and meant many things to many people.

Generous to a fault, Billie was misused by people, many people. Loving well but not wisely, that is the story of Billie Holiday’s life. Although regal, but not “pale,” Lady to me was a queen. (See Note below)

Los Angeles                                                                                        Dexter Gordon

Dexter is referencing Othello in his letter.


I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak

Of one that lov'd not wisely but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,

Perplex'd in the extreme. . . .

Shakespeare, Othello, Act 5, Scene 2



The Very Thought of You
Billie Holiday