Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Hear the latest from the WRKF/WWNO Newsroom.

West Baton Rouge Museum illustrates Billie Holiday

Jazz lovers, photo enthusiasts, and fans of Lady Day can unite at the West Baton Rouge Museum, where a collection of largely unseen photographs gives viewers a rare behind-the-scenes look at singer Billie Holiday. Museum executive director Angelique Bergeron tells us more about the exhibition, Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic.

Diane Mack
This must be a very exciting time for you at the West Baton Rouge museum to have such an important exhibit. Tell us about Billie Holiday and her life.

Angelique Bergeron
Well, Billie Holiday embodies so much to me. She's beauty, she's grace, she's class, she's strength, and she's wise. But she's troubled, too. Billy had troubles from her time as a young girl. Her mother married many times and there were reports of abuse. Later in her life, there was drug abuse and a series of failed marriages and unhelpful husbands. But her strength and perseverance are why she resonates so much with us today. Her music is taunting, it's complicated, and comforting– it’s all things. It's happy and sad, all at once.

Diane Mack
And this exhibit presents an unexpected journey into her life. How does it present an alternate narrative to her troubled story?

Angelique Bergeron
There's her troubled story and then there's the put-together perfected image that she had on the stage. And this kind of shows you behind the scenes. It shows you Billy on the streets, greeting fans, hugging babies, signing autographs– just getting ready for her performances and just interacting with the public. It's a really intimate portrait of her.

Diane Mack
It's kind of an “everyday Lady Day…”

Angelique Bergeron
“Everyday Lady Day,” I like it.

Diane Mack
Now tell us about the photographer Jerry Dantzic. How did he come to photograph Lady Day?

Angelique Bergeron
He had an assignment from Decca Records to photograph her week-long run of performances at the Newark nightclub Sugar Hill. He photographed her in April 1957 there, and then at a festival in New York the following August.

Diane Mack
How did he gain her trust to get such access to her to take these photos?

Angelique Bergeron
Jerry Dantzic’s son, Grayson Dantzic, is one of the curators for this exhibit. And he writes about his father's style as being very unobtrusive– kind-of in-the-background. He always was careful to only use the natural light so he didn't have light flashes in her eyes. He is able to capture this intimate portrait by his unassuming nature and ability to just get close to her.

Diane Mack
These photographs were taken shortly before she died

Angelique Bergeron
Two years before she passed and 1959 at the age of 44.

Diane Mack
Take us on this journey. Angelique. When we enter the museum, what will we see?

Angelique Bergeron
A larger-than-life portrait of Billy, beautifully-dressed, hair perfect, her diamonds. And then you'll walk into the gallery– we actually had to use two galleries to house all of the photographs– over 50 photographs. And we're a small regional history museum. Some of the photographs are over five feet tall– they are just stunning, crisp images, mostly black-and-white. There's a few color photographs. It’s just a beautiful, intimate portrait of Billie Holiday on stage and behind the scenes.

Diane Mack 
Do you have a few favorites?

Angelique Bergeron
Oh gosh, yes, I do. I love the images of her with her Chihuahua, Pepe– just so cute and so tender. There's so many. Just to see the beauty, the formal dress of the era, behind the scenes and makeup, how she's just putting on these layers for the public. But also just so normal and everyday behind the scenes with her family friends and folks. There's some really lovely photographs of her at the kitchen sink of a family friend at their apartment on West 93rd Street in Manhattan. But I think my favorites are the ones where she's on the stage. There's a great one of her at the bar where she looks like she's about to cuss out Jerry Dantzic or maybe she's in the middle of an argument with him or something. But there's a fire in her eyes and she just looks like she's given someone a piece of her mind.

Diane Mack
Does this club, the Sugar Hill nightclub– does it still exist today?

Angelique Bergeron
It does no. It has been closed for a few decades.

Diane Mack
Do you also have some of the photographer's effects?

Angelique Bergeron
We do. We have some of the ephemera from his assignment, photographing Billie Holiday's engagement at Sugar Hill. Some of the objects include his Leica M3 camera, and a photograph of him while holding it. His business cards from the late 1950’s and other items from that period.

Diane Mack
I see you have an upcoming concert at the museum in celebration of this exhibit, with some New Orleans based musicians. What can visitors look forward to?

Angelique Bergeron
Well, we have a monthly historical happy hour that we offer on our grounds. So in conjunction with the Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill exhibit, we've invited Mikhala Iversen to come up. There will be a Billie Holiday and Lester Young tribute on November 18th, featuring renowned New Orleans-based musicians, Mikhala Iversen– aka the Jazz Muffin– on vocals, Larry Sieberth on piano, Christian Winther on tenor sax, Tedd Long on bass, and Jared French on drums. Mikhala is also going to be doing a lecture here on November 10, talking about the early days of Lady Day, how she was given that nickname, and her struggles from the beginning.

Diane Mack
Will viewers come away with a better understanding of Billie Holiday and her life story?

Angelique Bergeron
I sure hope so. I sure hope it helps to make this icon a real person in their eyes.

The exhibit Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic is on view through January 7th at the West Baton Rouge Museum, 845 North Jefferson Avenue in Port Allen.

This transcript was edited with the help of Aubry Procell and Adam Vos.

Diane hosts Louisiana Considered on Tuesdays on WRKF and WWNO.
Alana Schreiber is the managing producer for the live daily news program, Louisiana Considered. She comes to WRKF from KUNC in Northern Colorado, where she worked as a radio producer for the daily news magazine, Colorado Edition. She has previously interned for Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and The Documentary Group in New York City.
Adam is responsible for coordinating WRKF's programming and making sure everything you hear on the radio runs smoothly. He is Newscast Editor for the WRKF/WWNO Newsroom. Adam is also the Baton Rouge-based host for Louisiana Considered, our daily regional news program, and is frequently the local voice afternoons on All Things Considered.
Aubry is a reporter, producer and operations assistant in Baton Rouge.