MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: That is the absolutely unique voice of Billie Holiday from her last studio album Lady in Satin. A.B. Spellman, I have to ask you, why this record?
A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: Because I was thinking that if we had to ask a person to pick one particular record to start their Billie Holiday collection, this would be the one that I would introduce her to them with. This record wore me down over the years. It was not my favorite for a long time, in fact I didn't even like it at first. Because in many ways, this is Billie Holiday at her worst.
HORWITZ: Hm. How so?
SPELLMAN: Well you know, a singer is very much into her body, and Billie's body was gone at this time — years of (unintelligible) had eroded it. She was very sick, and in fact she would be dead within a year.
HORWITZ: So the time of the album was 1958...
SPELLMAN: 1958. She died in 1959. Unfortunately, Billie Holiday is remembered probably more for her life than for her music and this is wrong, for she is one of the most important musicians in the entire history of jazz.
HORWITZ: What makes her that way - what made her so important?
SPELLMAN: Well, she is in that first generation of great microphone singers. She established that style so profoundly that it changed jazz singing forever.
HORWITZ: And it was more intimate, as you say because she had the microphone to work with, she didn't have to shout like the blues shouters did.
SPELLMAN: She could bend notes very slightly and they could be important changes to the melody because you could get it on the record.
HORWITZ: And what's a song that demonstrates that subtlety in this important album, Lady in Satin?
SPELLMAN: Well, every song on this album demonstrates that, Murray, and I would say that more than any other song, the song "You've Changed" demonstrates the power of this record.
Here you have Billie Holiday really stripped down to the minimum. You can hear the slurs, the way she breaks notes, the way she bends even one-syllable words. You can hear her — how she phrases, you can hear the liberty she takes with melodies, how she sings above or behind it. You can hear it better on the earlier records, but what you can't get on the earlier records is this incredible life in the music.
HORWITZ: These are not easy songs — "You've Changed," "End of a Love Affair," "Glad to be Unhappy" — how did she choose this repertoire?
SPELLMAN: She chose the repertoire on the basis of the lyrics. She wanted to do songs she had not done before and so she and Ray Ellis, the arranger on this record, and her lawyer, went down to the Colony Record Store and thumbed through the sheet music. And Billie read the lyrics — she never did learn to read music — and picked out the lyrics she enjoyed the most, the ones she thought she could do the best job with. And that's how the record was chosen.
HORWITZ: It's called Lady in Satin, it's on the Columbia Legacy label. For NPR Jazz, I'm Murray Horwitz.
SPELLMAN: And I'm A.B. Spellman.