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8/11/09

Linda Kuehl's Billie legacy - a follow-up


This is a follow-up to a recollection that begins here.


Not long after Linda Kuehl's death, I received a call from her sister, who lived in California but was in New York to perform the sad task that is so often left to friends or relatives. She was in Linda's apartment and she was wondering what she ought to do with all the Billie Holiday material.

I explained to her that we owe much of our knowledge of jazz history to dedicated collectors, but that there are among them unprincipled scavengers who might attempt to get their hands on Linda's material. It turned out that such attempts had already been made and Linda's sister realized that some were simply legitimate efforts to retrieve loaned objects, but it was confusing to her and she asked for my advice. I suggested that she place all the material in a safe place, such as a bank box, until she heard from Harper & Row, Linda's more recent publisher. They had given Linda a healthy advance (by jazz book standards) and might wish to find an author who could complete the book. In such a case, the material would be indispensable. Being a total novice when it came to legal matters and rights in such a case as this, I thought the material should at least be kept safe and intact until the future of the book was resolved. In other words, hold on to it, for now.

There was no question about Linda having borrowed many items, especially photos, and that they ought to be returned to the rightful owners. I was adamant about that, having myself been a victim of a photo collector whose obsession drove him to thievery. Over the years, many people have made me a gift of photos and other items, usually because they were advanced in age and feared that someone might simply throw in the trash that which had been so dear to them over a lifetime. I understand that now better than ever, having myself reached an age where the end of the tunnel looms. Not all the material I have came to me as a gift, some simply happened to be in my possession at the time of the owner's death. What does one do when there are no rightful claimants? One preserves and gives the material the life its original owner sought for it. Well, that's how I see it. That's also how Lil Armstrong's family saw it, which is why I still have so many precious photos from her early years—they and the material Alberta Hunter left me will all go to a collection that gives researchers and other interested parties access.

The importance of that was underlined for me by what happened to Linda's Billie Holiday material.

I don't recall how much time had passed since Linda's death when my phone rang and a producer asked me what had become of the Billie Holiday material. My working relationship with this man had been a roller coaster ride—he had proven himself to be a bit shaky on the business side, but he had a good idea when he formed a company that married quality books and filmed documentaries in a neat package. It was a clever way to milk (utilize is a nicer word) material, because the same photos and interviews could be used for book and film, but it also produced satisfying results and added positively to the jazz and blues library. This producer (who has asked not to be further identified) hired some of the top music writer/historians for these projects, and affiliated himself with established, prestigious distributors. I should disclose that I was involved in two of these projects*, and while getting paid was akin to pulling teeth, I did eventually get my money—at least one colleague had fight more fiercely, but that's another story, which I will leave alone.

Getting back to this man's call, I had in mind his past accomplishments rather than his business practices when I informed him that—as far as I knew—Linda's collection was in California, in the hands of her sister. Almost in the same breath, it occurred to me that I had made a mistake by pointing him in that direction. Of course, I did not know that Linda's sister would sell the entire collection to him, which, I gather, is what she did. I admit to having felt guilty when I later learned that this valuable material—some of which was only on loan to Linda—was being exploited for profit rather than reasonably made available to serious researchers. Linda worked hard to gather together these pieces of Billie's life, so she deserved to have the material used by people who shared her dedication to Billie rather than to have it be offered to the highest bidder.

My second-thought fear was not unfounded, as it turned out. I have recently learned that at least one precious photos was returned to the rightful owners, but through no effort on the producer's part. I hope I'm not being too cynical and that others have managed to get back what belongs with them. The only thing I know for certain is that one can rent access to Linda's collection for a rather steep fee, and I suspect that this arrangement has probably made back many times the initial investment.

While I assume that the entire collection was sold intact, it may not have been. I suspect that there may be missing pieces. Linda never showed me what she had gathered, but she told me about this and that piece, and brought to me one very special item the memory of which I vividly retain. It was a small plastic disc from one of those coin-operated recording booths that in a bygone era often were placed side by side with the photo booths. Greer Johnson, who had been editor of Cue Magazine and a close friend of Billie Holiday, gave or lent the disc to Linda, and it was just too exceptional for her not to share with me.

When she brought it to my apartment, we played it, very carefully. I wish we had made a tape, for this was the most extraordinary Billie Holiday recording I had ever heard—here she was at Christmas time, drunk and alone in a little booth on 42nd Street (according to Greer Johnson), singing "Come All Ye Faithful". It was both poignant and devastating—Linda became teary-eyed and I wasn't far from it. This short moment, captured for a few pennies, almost summed up Billie's life.

It is possible to bind thin plastic audio discs into books, as a tear-out page, and I suggested to Linda that she almost had to do this. She agreed, but her book never materialized and the disc seems to have disappeared. If it is in somebody's hands, I hope they appreciate its worth and don't put it up on e-bay like some discarded celebrity-chewed gum wad.

*  A documentary film and 2 biographical essays in a book.

11 comments:

  1. don't have much to say but thank you very much! your efforts are very much appreciated here!

    ( :-) actually, today i tried to quit smoking with the chris albertson method, having switched to the lightest possible cigarettes a few weeks ago...)

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  2. Love the blog Chris, though it's a bit hard for these old eyes. If you can increase the size of the font just a little?!

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  3. Thanks, greg mo. Sorry about the font size. I think you can control that on your end. If you are using Safari (browser) on a Mac, the preferences option lets you add a "zoom" button. If you use a PC, there must be some equivalent. If I use a larger font, I'm afraid it will adversely affect many visitors.

    A special thanks for reading my stuff, anyway!

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  4. Chris,
    I am so grateful that you have shared your experiences and friendship with Linda Kuehl. I would like to interview you if possible? I can explain more in person/by phone. You can reach me at diahnnanicolebaxter@gmail.com. Thank you again, May her work and voice never be forgotten.
    Best,
    Diahnna Nicole Baxter

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  5. I enjoyed reading this so much I posted a link to my facebook page. Thank you!

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  6. Thank you for posting an encouraging comment, and for the link. I have just made my first visit to your blog and you can be sure that I will be a regular from now on.

    Apropos your blog, I was delighted to see there a quote from my interview with Ruby Walker, Bessie Smith's niece. I will be doing more on Ruby here.

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  7. After reading your blog, had to wonder if Linda was the same Linda Kuehl that was an English professor at Jersey City State Teacher's College and lived down the Village. I was one of her students, took both classes that she taught, and always remained friends. Loved her; she was so special. Started doing research for her, and we were suppose to meet, I hadn't heard from her it was her birthday week, so I called and the female voice that answered said that she was Linda's sister and Linda was found dead. I was stunned, crushed, and could barely respond. Linda was young. My message was that we were suppose to get together, but if there was anything I could do - please let me know. I realize this is many years after the fact but it's the first time I've seen this.
    simonebojar@gmail.com
    Simone

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  8. Hello Chris,

    The original article "My Friend Linda Kuehl" seems to have disappeared - any particular reason..?

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    1. Hi Gareth, I'm sorry that you are having a problem accessing this article, my iPad took me right to it. please try again. Actually, if you see this response...

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    2. Hi Chris, I tried replying to you regarding this several times after receiving your kind and prompt reply back in November but my replies didn't get by the moderator for whatever reason... The link on the this page doesn't access the original article nor can I find it on the collapsible menus of earlier posts pre-August 2009. Are you able to help please..? Thanks.

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  9. It's nearly Billie's 100th and there is going to be more interest in her than usual. Now is the time to see if that tape of Come All Ye Faithful still exists. It's time to email Jazz radio shows and contact people like Julia Blackburn and Donald Clarke. Obviously the HBO film will premiere in April. Imagine if there was a brand new Billie Holiday track to mark the occasion too. This track must be found!

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