By Liz RonkArpita Aneja and Eliza Berman
April 3, 2015

When Wynton Marsalis was 24, he spent a year listening to Billie Holiday. “I listened to every record I could find of hers,” he says, “and every day I only listened to her.” One might expect a young Marsalis to spend a year with Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie, musicians who excelled on the trumpet, which he plays. But Holiday’s own instrument, her voice, contains multitudes — lessons on rhythm, phrasing and sophistication that any student of jazz would do well to study.

Marsalis spoke with LIFE to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Holiday’s birth on April 7, 1915. In the video above, he discusses her rhythmic sensibility, why it’s a mistake to attribute the quality of her voice to the hardship of her life and how she came to be recognized as one of the greatest voices in the history of jazz.

Billie Holiday singing "Fine & Mellow" accompanied by James P. Johnson at piano.
Gjon Mili—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Billie Holiday Festival takes place on April 9-12. Go to www.jazz.org for event and live webcast information.

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