Two years before her tragic death in 1959, legendary singer Billie Holiday hit the stage for a weeklong residency at popular Sugar Hill nightclub in Newark, New Jersey. Nicknamed “Lady Day,” the jazz singer’s time on and off the stage was captured in a series of remarkable images by photographer Jerry Dantzic.
Now, six decades later, a new exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) features more than 50 of those never-before-seen photos of Holiday that were shot by Dantzic while he was on assignment by Decca Records.
But what happened during their time together was completely unexpected. His images comprise the largest collection of photos from any single Holiday club engagement.
The exhibit titled, Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic, challenges the tragic narrative that frequently defines her, as the photos show the complexity of Holiday along with her elegance and star power.
“To the Smithsonian this exhibition is very important, not just because of the rare photographs. But these photographs were taken at a time two years before Billie passed in 1957,” SITES representative Arlene Irizarry told MadameNoire.
”You will see in the photographs the kind of relationship that happened between both of them. He was a hired photographer taking photos of her, yet she allowed him into her world and the photographs show her, not just as a performer, but also her human nature as well.”
In one photo captured by Dantzic, Holiday is seen sporting a smile while holding her pet Chihuahua named Pepi outside of Sugar Hill. Another image he took shows the singer showing affection to her then-infant godson while inside her friend’s apartment on 93rd Street in Manhattan.
Of the images, Dantzic’s son, Grayson Dantzic, told MadameNoire: “I think there was this magical thing happening. No body captured what my father was able to capture of Billie. She didn’t give that kind of access to anyone else in her whole life. ”
He added: “You think you know Billie, you don’t know Billie. … If you look at one of the photos showing Billie holding her dog Pepi outside of Sugar Hill, there’s zero stress on her face, that’s a woman at peace in her joy and glory. I think that was one of the most perfect moments showing her life.”
In addition, Irizarry revealed this exhibit is part of a new initiative by the Smithsonian that’s currently in the works.
“The slogan is ‘Because of Her Story’ and we are trying to amplify the stories of women who have shaped the nation and American culture,’ Irizarry told MadameNoire. “And Billie Holiday is a perfect example of this. It’s another reason why this exhibition is important to us as well.”
The traveling exhibit begins at Irving Arts Center in Irving, Texas on September 14, 2019 and runs through November 17, 2019. It will then go to the Museum of Arts and Sciences, also a Smithsonian Affiliate, in Daytona Beach, Florida, Jan. 25, 2020, through April 19. The exhibit will lastly be displayed in the very city they were captured in, Newark, New Jersey at the Newark Museum from May 9, 2020, to August 9th.