Review: Lady Day arrives in Tulsa

Woody Guthrie Center hosts an exhibit of rare photographs of Billie Holiday 

In the year 1957, a photographer named Jerry Dantzic is hired by Decca Records to photograph one of jazz’s greatest icons, Billie Holiday. These photographs all took place during a weeklong run of performances at a nightclub in Newark, N.J., known as Sugar Hill. And what became of these pictures would eventually become the largest collection of images from any single Billie Holiday club engagement. 

“Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic” is a touring exhibit now featured at the Woody Guthrie Center. (Photo by Ethan Gray)

Now, over 60 years later, these photographs by Dantzic are featured in an exhibit at Tulsa’s own Woody Guthrie Center. “Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photos by Jerry Dantzic” will be on display until Jan. 14 and will be a part of several events in association with the topic of Billie Holiday. The exhibit is organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in collaboration with the Jerry Dantzic Archives.  

“Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic” will be on display at the Woody Guthrie Center until Jan. 14, 2024. (Photo by Ethan Gray)

On the second floor of the Woody Guthrie Center, the “Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photos by Jerry Dantzic” exhibit can be found. In the exhibit room, the photos of Billie Holiday are hung around the walls in large print. Her music plays on a speaker, filling the room with an ambiance that wonderfully takes you back in time to that fateful weekend in Newark, N.J. It is as if you are spending a moment in time with Lady Day herself. The photographs showcase the raw beauty and charm Billie Holiday possessed. Whether it was her meeting with fans on the street, spending time with friends, or taking the stage, even in the mundane, her radiance shined through her persona. Dantzic’s mastery of his craft resulted in powerful pictures of singer, social activist, and icon Billie Holiday. 

Guests venture through the arranged images on display of Billie Holiday for a personal look into the life of the jazz icon. (Photo by Ethan Gray)

Looking at the collection of photographs, we see so many sides to Billie Holiday like never before during her lifetime. Like Woody Guthrie, Holiday was more than just a musician; she was a civil activist who fought for racial injustice. Both Guthrie and Holiday even performed at some of the same benefit concerts.   

After speaking with the director of the Woody Guthrie Center, Cady Shaw, I learned more about Billie Holiday’s activism as well as her life. Shaw expressed the importance of what this exhibition means to the center. “It’s incredibly important. The exhibit is a wonderful look at the life of Billie Holiday, who is an activist and a social justice warrior in her own way, which is what Woody Guthrie was as well.”  

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. Photo by Jerry Dantzic.

“Both of them performed at the same venues for the same causes. Particularly when Isaac Woodward was blinded by police brutality, there was a benefit concert at which both of them made headlines. It’s important to tell these stories of social justice activists of the past,” Shaw said.  

“What I really love about this exhibit is that it is towards the end of her life, centered two years before her death. And you’re seeing a Billie Holiday who has been through this struggle, but she’s still shining.”  

The struggle that Shaw mentions is the hardships Holiday endured for many years. “Billie Holiday paid a really great price for standing up for her beliefs. She was ostracized from clubs and banned from venues where other people would be, all for standing up for what she believed. Most people know there was a lot of tragedy in her life; she died young, as did Woody Guthrie. Most people do not know the end of her life.”   

But despite all the tragedy that did befall Ms. Holiday, these photographs help to show the brilliance that still shines through highlighting the public and private images of her.  

“You get an unfiltered, deep look at this icon that you wouldn’t normally see. You don’t get access to their normal lives—walking the street, kissing babies, playing with her dog, making lunch, and you don’t see her in that way. In this exhibit, you do. You have an all-access pass to a day with Billie Holiday. You see her doing her daily tasks, then you see her getting ready and performing at night. I really love that juxtaposition day and night in this exhibit,” said Shaw.  

Billie Holiday holding her pet Chihuahua, Pepi, in front of Sugar Hill, Newark, New Jersey, April 18, 1957. Photo by Jerry Dantzic.

Thanks to Jerry Dantzic, his photos live on thanks to the efforts made by his son Grayson Dantzic.  

“Grayson Dantzic, who is also a photographer, found these images in his father’s collection a few years ago, realizing what was there, and created this book, “Jerry Dantzic: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill” with the Smithsonian traveling exhibit. Zady Smith wrote a reflection on it: It’s just unprecedented access to Billie Holiday,” said Shaw.  

Shaw also expressed the mastery Jerry Dantzic had over these photographs.  

“Jerry Dantzic has a beautiful eye in the way he captured her. He didn’t use lights. He used what was available and so you are seeing exactly what he was seeing. They are beautiful.”  

With this exhibit opened until Jan. 14, plenty of events are planned at the Woody Guthrie Center that will be connected to Billie Holiday. On Nov. 11, a concert and lecture were performed by Queen Esther, a New York musician. She covered and lectured on the work of Billie Holiday. 

On Nov. 30, the Center will be screening “Strange Fruit,” a 2002 documentary with its director, Joel Katz.   

On Dec. 9, another musician will be covering the work of Billie Holiday. This performance will feature renowned Tahira Clayton. Clayton’s stage presence and hypnotic vocals make for a musical experience you will not find anywhere else.  

Finally, on Jan. 14, the day before the exhibit closes, there will be the screening of the PBS documentary “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” which is the concert of which both Woody Guthrie and Billie Holiday attended and performed. 

Billie Holiday walks off into the night on Broad Street after a gig at Sugar Hill, Newark, New Jersey, April, 1957. Photo by Jerry Dantzic.

For more information on the exhibit, “Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photos by Jerry Dantzic,” or for upcoming events, go to The Woody Guthrie Center.   

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