A Must for Lady Day Fans: “Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill” by Jerry Dantzic

Written by
Jerry Dantzic, Billie Holiday holding her pet Chihuahua, Pepi, in front of Sugar Hill, Newark, New Jersey, April 18, 1957. © 2017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The poignant story of Billie Holiday‘s life is one that many of her fans are all too familiar with. From her heart-wrenching ballads (think her last album Lady in Satin) to the timeless photos of Lady Day performing in dimly lit jazz clubs amidst swirling plumes of cigarette smoke, Billie laid bare her soul for all to hear and see. A new book, Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill, takes us back in time to April 1957. It’s an intimate portrayal of the legendary artist as captured in never-before-seen photos by photographer Jerry Dantzic (1925–2006) during a week-long residency at the Sugar Hill jazz club in Newark, New Jersey.

Author Grayson Dantzic, who compiled the photos, tells us that his father, Jerry Dantzic, had been on a freelance assignment for Decca Records to document Billie’s performances at the Sugar Hill club. William Dufty, with whom Billie co-wrote her autobiography the previous year, introduced the elder Dantzic to Holiday, and the two formed a personal and trusted friendship. What follows is an intimate portrait of the jazz diva, captured in a series of everyday moments of Billie’s life, along with behind-the-scenes shots from her Sugar Hill gig.

It was a high point in Billie’s life and professional career: She was in the honeymoon phase of her marriage to Louis McKay. She had just performed to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall, and her career had received a boost from the release of her autobiography the previous year. There are images of her strolling down Broad Street in Newark with Sugar Hill club owner Bernie Weissman, smiling at fans they encountered along the way. Others show her visiting the home of William and Maely Dufty and their son, Bevan, who was Billie’s godchild. Also with her beloved pet Chihuahua.

Billie Holiday with Bernie Weissman, owner and manager of Sugar Hill, on Broad Street, Newark. © 2017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill is the artist as we’ve rarely seen her. Rather than the tragically abused addict that we know from her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), and its remake as a 1972 film version starring Diana Ross, Dantzic’s photos reveal a warmth and tenderness not often talked about in portrayals of the jazz diva. It’s a momentary respite from Billie’s better-known trials and tribulations that plagued most of her life and career.

The book opens with a poignant, impressionistic reflection by none other than British writer Zadie Smith, author of Swing Time, White Teeth and other works. Publishers Thames and Hudson have done a remarkable job with the hardbound edition. This unique and personal portrait of Billie Holiday is a must for any Lady Day fan.

Banner image: Billie at the 2nd New York Jazz Festival on Randall’s Island, August 24, 1957. © 2017 Jerry Dantzic/Jerry Dantzic Archives