Christine Tobin on the “artist’s dignity”

On last night’s edition BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Library the presenter Alyn Shipton was joined by Irish-born Jazz singer  Christine Tobin  (photo and blogroll) to choose the best of Bille Holiday’s recorded output.

Towards the end of the programme, and before playing a May 1956 recording of God Bless the Child, reissued by Verve on the ten cd set The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve (Number 5138592 CD 6), Shipton asks Tobin what she thinks of Verve’s including on it rehearsal versions of songs, including one of God Bless the Child on which which snatches of conversation between Holiday and Tony Scott at Mae and William Dufty’s house, 30 May 1956 are audible.

As I happen to think that the important issue of how much of the artistic process the public should ever be given access to is raised by  the short discussion that followed, I am printing a full transcript of it here. 

Christine Tobin: I think morally it is a suspect thing to do, because and artist will think long and hard deciding when going into the studio what takes to put out. You rehearse the music and you get it right, because you have a vision of how you want it to sound – and obviously Billie Holiday had that – I’m sure she would have had that. Then you get somebody who comes along  and releases that – so it’s not the complete vision she had. I think it’s a great infringement on her dignity.  

( part of Conversation and God Bless The Child (rehearsal) is played) 

Alyn Shipton: I take it slightly differently to that. I listen to that piece of rehearsal – with the car horns and the noise of the street outside and the telephone ringing – all sorts of other conversations going on in the background – and you hear Tony ,,, to get the keys sorted out. (Obviously he’s got a notebook and he’s jotting down “we’re going to do this one in E flat or whatever – he actually goes through it about fourteen times to try to get exactly the right speed, even phrasing) – and then you hear the complete magic in the studio – and her voice has lost its  edge: its lost the rawness of rehearsal and you hear just what an extraordinary she was in the right studio setting. 

Christine Tobin: Yes but in the piece you gust heard saying to “tell that son-of- bitch to go away” or something like that – she does not sound anything like that when she sings. When she sings,  this is the person she is presenting – that’s her artistic decision and the other side is not something she brings to the stage – nor can I hear any sense of it in any of the recordings I have. So, I have to disagree with you – I think it’s wrong, and I think it’s an intrusion – it makes a mockery of a persons artistic choices.

Anybody acquainted -even silghtly – with Tobin will not find the agrument about the issue of material not intended foir public consumption an “an infringement” of “dignity” in any way surprising. She has a very heightened sense of her own dignity as an artist – in fact, some would go so far as to say that her sense of dignitly is so developed that it hampers her artistic development – and no doubt feels that all artists should be imbued with that same sense.

However, be that as it may, there is a lot to be said for the argument she puts in this case. I cannot for the life of me see what insights we are expected to get from rehearsal material of this kind of the kind Verve has made available on Holiday. Alyn Shipton seems to think that it highlights “her complete magic in the studio”, but, by the same token, so would a recording of her singing in the bath or her humming while on a shopping spree.  

That is not say that I would want to see all material of this kind consigned to the dustbin, although I fairly certain that Tobin would.  I do honestly believe that the listener might get a understanding of how the singer had arrived at the definitive version of a song if he or she had access to versions that had been disgarded, and I certainly would not want them to be denied that access forever. As a teacher (which I believe she occasionally is), Tobin should know that the lesson an artist can teach is the importance of choices. If, as students, we cannot see choices being made, how are we to understand them?  

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Jazz Library: Billie Holiday

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