It’s easy for the rest of us to forget that famous people — actors, athletes, presidents or, in this case, an iconic jazz singer — are just people who happen to be famous.
“Jerry Dantzic: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill,” a sleek coffee table book of photographs, many never seen before, is a reminder that between the fame and the infamy, normal life happens. In glossy page after glossy page, Dantzic, a photojournalist who died in 2006, captures Holiday performing, mostly at the Sugar Hill music club in Newark, one of the cities she turned to after New York banned her from performing in nightclubs because of her drug arrests.
It’s the everyday nature of these black-and-white photographs that makes them so unusual. Holiday is pictured walking into the club before a performance; putting on her makeup in front of a dressing room mirror; being licked on the cheek by her Chihuahua; holding her blond-haired godson in her arms; or leaning over a pan in her friend’s kitchen.
The book, put together by the photographer’s son and curator, Grayson Dantzic, is a loosely chronological photo essay of nine days in Holiday’s life. Most of these photographs — chosen from nearly 400 — capture the time around several gigs at the Sugar Hill in April 1957. Holiday died two years later at age 44.
Christopher Sweet, who edited the book, said the photos in Holiday’s dressing room are probably his favorite. “They’re really very moving. She’s preoccupied or putting her lipstick on or nuzzling her Chihuahua. But even on stage you’re seeing this range of expression. You see this woman battered by life, time and struggle, but also you see this angelic beauty that she had.”
It was a challenging period in Holiday’s life. Although she’d performed at Carnegie Hall the year before, her health was poor, and her finances difficult. When she did perform, though, her audiences were huge and devoted.
Grayson Dantzic said he’d had no idea, growing up, that his father had even known Holiday, let alone photographed her. He was familiar only with his father’s panoramic color photography. He had spent most summers of his childhood in the family motor home while his father drove across the United States, work for which Jerry Dantzic had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, two Guggenheims and a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
It wasn’t until his father became ill that he found out he’d worked in 1950s New York. Grayson Dantzic asked what he could do to get to know him better. “My father said, ‘Go up to the studio. See what you find.’ So I went upstairs, and I see these photos on the floor of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong. I came downstairs and said, ‘I’m quitting my job, and I’m going to work for you.’ ” After his father died in 2006, Grayson Dantzic spent years trying to find a publisher for “Jerry Dantzic: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill.”
British novelist Zadie Smith, who sang jazz before she began publishing fiction, provides a curious introduction to the book: a short story written from Holiday’s point of view. “You give it all away, it streams from you, like rivers rolling to the sea: love, music, money, smokes,” Smith writes. “What you got, everybody wants — and most days you let ’em have it.”
Carole Burns’s most recent book is “The Missing Woman and Other Stories.”
By Jerry Dantzic, Grayson Dantzic and Zadie Smith
Thames & Hudson. 144 pp. $40