By Suzanne Ruta
Updated December 09, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

”When you listened to Billie Holiday sing, you felt that she had lived that experience and was telling a story about it,” a bass player reminisces in Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday. He was on stage with her at Carnegie Hall in 1948, but you can get the same feeling of authentic soul-baring genius from her records and from this crowded chronicle. Donald Clarke (editor of the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music) lets Holiday’s friends and fellow musicians tell most of the story in their own lingo — funny, raunchy, cool, astute, and often tragic. The result is a dense, rich portrait of the jazz milieu from the ’20s through the ’50s. Holiday, too, speaks in her own voice, unbeatably honest and down-to-earth. She disliked visiting people’s homes ”because the drinks don’t come fast enough, honey, and you can’t leave when you want to.” She left this life in 1959, at age 44, worn down by racism, liquor, drugs, and marital hardships. This lively, complicated bio brings her right back. A

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