Arts Music

The humanity of Billie Holiday shown in Jerry Dantzic’s intimate photos at Newark Museum of Art

As a result of Jerry Dantzic’s unique level of access to Holiday’s private life during her one-week engagement at Sugar Hill jazz club in Newark, the collection of photographs works to push back against the historically dominant narrative of who Holiday was.

When photographer Jerry Dantzic was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy in the late 1990s, his son, Grayson, wanted to get a better idea of who his father was. 

“We’d watch football games or whatever, but we weren’t really tight,” Grayson Dantzic says. “And he said, ‘Go up to the studio, that’s who I am.’”

What Grayson found was a connection to his father through pieces of his photography career, including a collection of photographs from Billie Holiday’s week-long engagement at Newark’s Sugar Hill jazz club in 1957, two years before her death.

From there, Grayson quit his job and focused on managing his father’s archives, trying to “include him in the conversation” with other great photographers and get his work recognized on a larger scale, Grayson says. 

The result is a collection of 56 images creating an intimate portrait of Billie Holiday that showcases her week in Newark and her unique relationship with Jerry Dantzic. The photos are now on display in a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) exhibition, Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic, at the Newark Museum of Art through Aug. 21. 

Billie Holiday performing on stage with her band – Paul “Vice Pres” Quinichette on tenor saxophone (barely visible behind Billie), Carl Drinkard on piano, Jimmy Schenck on bass and Bobby “Stix” Darden on drums at Sugar Hill, Newark, New Jersey, April, 1957.All photographs © 2018 Jerry Dantzic/ Jerry Dantzic Archives. All rights reserved.

The collection highlights a lesser-explored side of Billie Holiday, while also celebrating Newark’s jazz scene and Dantzic’s photography. During Holiday’s week-long residency at Sugar Hill, Dantzic “didn’t just shoot those public moments,” says Catherine Evans, deputy director of collections and curatorial strategies at the Newark Museum of Art.  “He was looking at her as she walked, as she lived, … so we start to see the fuller humanity of the person.” 

As a result of Dantzic’s unique level of access to Holiday’s private life, the collection of photographs works to push back against the historically dominant narrative of who Holiday was. After a troubled childhood, Holiday grew her music career from a teenager singing in Harlem clubs, to becoming one of the highest-grossing woman singers in the mid-’40s. 

Billie Holiday on stage at Sugar Hill, Newark, New Jersey, April, 1957. All photographs © 2018 Jerry Dantzic/ Jerry Dantzic Archives. All rights reserved.

But Holiday also struggled with drug addiction much of her adult life. In 1947, Holiday was arrested on drug charges—although history suggests she was a casualty of the war on drugs and perhaps, McCarthyism, as she was targeted for social justice messages in her music, particularly the song “Strange Fruit,” which bore witness to lynching.

Ultimately, Holiday pled guilty and served almost a year in prison. She lost her cabaret card, which meant she couldn’t play in nightclubs for more than a decade. Her ongoing addiction issues and deteriorating health ultimately led to her death, at age 44, from cirrhosis of the liver. 

Holiday was a resilient, complicated, troubled and tremendously talented figure, but history often remembers Holiday only as a “one-dimensional, drug-addicted, sad woman,” Grayson says. Yet, his father’s photography reveals elements of Holiday that were obscured by her dubious public perception.

“You will see that maternal quality, you see the love,” Grayson says. “You see the joy of life.” 

The photographs showcased in Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic feature Holiday not only in public performances, but also behind the scenes. Holiday, as photographed by Dantzic, can be seen with her beloved pet Chihuahua, Pepi, and her extended family, including her godson, Bevan Dufty.

Jerry Dantzic’s ability to capture Holiday’s more human side came from his unintrusive approach to photography. For example, he used only available light for his photographs of Holiday, never using flash. 

“She was allowing this trusted soul to document her public and private life, and nobody else has that,” Grayson says. 

Grayson says the special relationship between Holiday and his father is visible through the photographs themselves. Holiday is “looking directly at the camera” in many of the pictures, which means “she’s looking at Jerry,” Grayson says. 

During his childhood, Grayson felt a special connection to Holiday; managing this archive allowed him to further engage with his father as well as the singer. 

“I always knew there was more to Billie, and then to think that my father was the one who would reveal that for history…” Grayson says.

Billie Holiday embraces a fan on Broad Street after receiving a gift; Carl Drinkard is behind her flicking his cigarette into a trashcan, Newark, New Jersey, April, 1957. All photographs © 2018 Jerry Dantzic/ Jerry Dantzic Archives. All rights reserved.

Grayson says his hope is that people who learn about Holiday through his father’s photographs “get a much fuller picture of Billie” rather than “the historical narrative that has been perpetuated and needs to be disproved.” 

Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic is presented alongside Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection at the Newark Museum of Art. 

The Jazz Greats exhibitions highlight “photographs of jazz musicians captured by photographers as dynamic as their subjects,” according to the museum’s website. The exhibition features work by Antony Armstrong Jones, Milt Hinton, Gjon Mili, William Gottlieb, Chuck Stewart and Barbara Morgan. 

Billie Holiday and her pet Chihuahua, Pepi backstage at Sugar Hill, Newark, New Jersey, April 18, 1957. All photographs © 2018 Jerry Dantzic/ Jerry Dantzic Archives. All rights reserved.

Photography is key to the storytelling in both exhibitions, Evans says. 

“Photography was uniquely suited to the jazz characteristics of improvisation,” Evans says. “All of those things kind of work together in a marriage of medium and performance.” 

Evans says the two exhibitions work in tandem to craft an image of jazz as an American art form. 

“You get this micro piece, and then you get the fuller context,” Evans says. “There’s an incredible complementary moment.” 

Grayson says he thinks having the two exhibitions presented together creates a special experience for visitors. 

“The magic of having these great shows, not just here but together,” Grayson says, “I think they complement each other incredibly well.” 

Patrons who come to see the exhibitions will not only get to experience the work of great photographers; they will get a sense of the city of Newark as a center of jazz music as well. Evans says Newark’s connection to jazz music is “central to why we wanted to bring the show to the Newark Museum of Art.” 

“We’re very much an institution of the community,” Evans says. “For visitors to be able to see themselves in this community and in this era is very, very intentional.” 

In addition to photographs, the exhibitions feature a map highlighting where jazz clubs in Newark used to be located, many of which hosted the jazz icons featured in the photographs. The Newark Museum of Art is also offering programming that advances on what the exhibitions cover. 

Evans says she hopes patrons gain “an understanding that Newark was a city of jazz, was incredibly vibrant” and begin to view the city “in a new way, as a nexus of incredible talent.” 

Even though Sugar Hill was an important venue within Newark’s jazz scene, “there’s no record” of it in many historical records, Grayson says. Because of this, Grayson says he was excited to bring this exhibition and his research “back home to Newark.” 

“This is my love letter to Newark,” Grayson says. “I love the opportunity to give this back to Newark.” 

Grayson says he hopes that visitors “use this exhibition as a way to reflect upon what they think they know and expand on what they have learned” after leaving. 

Above all, Grayson says he hopes that visitors take note of the love that lies at the center of his father’s photographs.

“Dad photographed with love, and she sang about love,” Grayson says. “And I did this exhibition out of love.”

Grayson Dantzic will hold a talk and book signing (for Jerry Dantzic: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: With a reflection by Zadie Smith) the Newark Museum of Art on June 25 from 2-3:30 p.m. More information here.