Frank O'Hara on Billie Holiday - JazzWax

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October 22, 2010


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Larry Kart

Back in 1969 or 1970, when I was assistant editor of Down Beat under Dan Morgenstern, I got us to reprint "The Day Lady Died" in a special Lester Young-Billie Holiday memorial issue, which also included Dan's great piece "Lester Leaps In" (originally published in 1958 and reprinted in his book "Living With Jazz").

Joel Lewis

Thanks for posting this poem -- a couple of points I wanted to note:

1 - O'Hara made his living at the Museum of Modern Art rising from a desk assisstant to Assisstant Curator (He was to become Curator at the time of his death). He put together many important shows at MOMA &, for a period, travelled Europe as part of travelling MOMA exhibitions. His art writings are collected in a book called "The Art Chronicles"

2 - O'Hara was more of a classical music fan and was friends with Leonard Bernstein & Morton Feldman. His young poet friends were jazz fans, especially his close friend Le Roi Jones (later to become Amiri Baraka). O'Hara studied music at New England Conservatory before he went to college (where he began as a music major) and even compsoed incidental music for his friend John Ashbery's plays.

3 -- for years, jazz fans thought O'hara was taking "poetic liberties" in this poem. Holiday could not sing in NYC clubs -- she had lost her cabaret card. The puzzle was solved in a memoir by novelist-editor Joyce Johnson (who was Kerouac's gf at time of On The Road) who was present with O'hara and friends at the event described in the poem. It was a mal waldron gig and Holiday sat in for a number with his trio.

joel Lewis

Ed Leimbacher

All the right Jazz, and poetry too, should do just exactly what O'Hara's words and Billie's singing do here--leave you suspended in Time, scarcely breathing, lost in the moment and the artistry. (And thanks to Lewis for elucidating that serendipitous gig; how blessed we are that O'Hara and Johnson were there and in the moment.)

Ian Carey

This is great, I love O'Hara. On an unrelated note: I once got drunk on Strega. Take my advice and NEVER do that.


The late fifties was certainly a special time in New York (especially for jazz), but I'm extremely skeptical of the statement that "you could feed yourself by selling poetry to magazines." As Joel Lewis points out, O'Hara had more substantial sources of income, and I would be curious to learn about any poets who actually supported themselves solely in this manner.

Federico Moramarco

A long while ago I wrote this poem as a tribute to O'Hara:

The Day Lady Died, Lady Died

I’m driving along Interstate 8, it’s 12:20, a Monday
and I pop the new cassette I bought for $1.64
into my hot new state of the art in-dash stereo

so I can hear what kind of Billy Holiday songs
could possibly be on this tape for only $1.64,
and out to the speakers comes the shrill

unmistakable sound of her voice, soaked in booze and
wavering out of control, just this side of oblivion:
I make a date for golf and you can bet your ass it rains,

and she pronounces “ass” “ash” slurring the phrase into
the laughter that follows it and I’m aware that this is
no regular tape, but some bootlegged rehearsal session

late in Lady’s life, some time in the ‘50s and she’s reminiscing
with the piano player about her early days in the music biz
singing with Charlie Johnson’s all-negro band

and I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing for $1.64
when she starts again, no fooling around this time,
I make a date for golf and you can bet your life it rains,

and I’ve lost track of where I’m going by now
as she settles into the melody with her old friend pain
while I turn onto Interstate 5 heading up the California coast
a long way from the Five Spot where everyone and Frank O’Hara stopped breathing.

Ed Leimbacher

As pianist Jimmy Rowles likely said on that day of rehearsals with Billie and booze... "Pshaw." (He pronounced "it" slightly different from the rest of us.) And when he yelled, "Four!", it was on a count of the club.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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