On January 11, 1954, jazz singer Billie Holiday arrived in Copenhagen to kick off her first European tour, a trip long in the making.
Born in poverty in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore in 1915, Holiday made her way to New York as a teenager and began singing in Harlem nightclubs. By the early 1940s, she earned mainstream success on Columbia and Decca Records. Along the way, however, she also developed a pernicious drug habit. Arrested in 1947 for narcotics possession, Holiday was sentenced to a year at the Federal Women’s Reformatory in West Virginia. She was released nine months later and returned to New York for a triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall. But because of her conviction, the New York Police Department would not allow her to obtain a “cabaret card,” effectively blocking her from any venue with a liquor license. As she put it in her 1956 autobiography,
Lady Sings the Blues, “I could play in theaters and sing to an audience of kids…I could appear on radio or TV. I could appear in concerts at Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. But if I opened my mouth in the crummiest bar in town, I was violating the law.”
Holiday continued to perform at venues across the country, but hoped to tour overseas. “I guess every Negro performer dreams of going to Europe,” she wrote. “Some of them have gone over and never come back. Ever since I got to be a name I had thought about it too…Especially after six years of exile from New York clubs…it got to be a big thing.” Finally, a month-long Western European tour materialized. Named “Jazz Club USA” after a radio show hosted by jazz critic, historian and producer, Leonard Feather (also the tour’s “MC and shepherd”), it included 60 shows across Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Italy and France, concluding in London’s Royal Albert Hall.
When Holiday got off the plane in Copenhagen that snowy January morning, she was embraced by the press and hundreds of adoring fans, including a doctor and his 12-year-old daughter. She described the encounter in Lady Sings the Blues: “They told me how they loved me, had heard every record I ever made. When the doctor heard me blowing my nose, he was all concerned. Nothing would do but I should go home with them so he could give me something for my cold. He kept at me until I finally agreed. So off we went with these perfect strangers to be guests in their home. If something like this happened at La Guardia people would say I was crazy.” She went home with the father and daughter, where she observed how World War II and the Nazi occupation had impacted this family’s fortunes. “You could see from their home that they had once been well-off, but they had lost just about everything in the war.” But they extended hospitality to Holiday—feeding her, giving her medicine and encouraging her to come back and stay with them anytime.
This chance encounter with a Danish doctor and his daughter was the inspiration behind Dael Orlandersmith’s Lady in Denmark. But it was only one of many moments of kindness and grace that Holiday describes on her trip—from the young German man who invited her out to see the “only swing band in Berlin,” to the stays at beautiful hotels in Antwerp and Zurich, to the interviews and press conferences with knowledgeable, affable music journalists. She also discovered a different attitude towards drug addiction. “You just take for granted that if things are mixed up and crazy in America they got to be that way everywhere,” she explained. “But not in Britain, or in most of Europe either. Sick people who are on stuff over there are treated like sick people.”
Holiday found the European adoration and progressive attitudes in marked contrast to the racism she experienced on her journeys across America. Touring with Artie Shaw in 1938, as a black singer in an all-white band, Holiday was not extended the same lodging or dining privileges as her band mates; she never “ate, slept, or went to the bathroom without having a major NAACP-type production.” Almost two decades later, Holiday was traveling across Europe, treated like jazz royalty. But at the end of those 30 days, the singer got back on the plane and went home.
Five years later, again succumbing to drug and alcohol addiction, Holiday was hospitalized for treatment of liver and heart disease. There, she was met by agents from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who arrested her for possession—and handcuffed
her to what would ultimately become her deathbed. She died on Friday, July 17, 1959 at the age of 44.