Feb 10, 2019
Saturday evening Feb 9, a stormy, gusty night, a good friend and I went to theOccidental Art Center for the Arts to see the "Billy Holiday Project", the brainchild of our local very talented artistStella Heath. The show had sold out and I was happy to have my previously purchased online tickets. This young woman's singing took my breath away, smooth as velvet as she sang uplifting as well as deeply contemplative songs that referenced some painful history. Stella sings in the style of "Lady Day" Lester Young's nickname for Billie Holliday.
Stella was introduced as one of the hardest working musicians around our county and it shows. Her band members were impeccable players as well with Neil Angelo Fontana on the piano with long agile fingers rolling over the keys like a rushing early spring creek; Jason Bellenkes, tenor saxophone, and clarinet, soulful and deep in his playing with accents that pulled my heartstrings; Trevor Kinsel on upright bass and cornet with his original and quirky improvisations; and finally drummer Pete Lind the grounding, steady background presence, rounding out the ensemble. Stella’s stage presence is amazing while she is singing, and sweetly demure when listening to her band member solo’s. But with her talent, radiance, youth, and beauty she need not hold back...she can stand tall close her eyes and just swing to the music head high.
This memorable evening of classic Billie Holiday tunes was offered to us with warmth and style as the Occidental arts center celebrates Black History Month. Except for the last somber piece I don't think I stopped smiling and cheerfully bobbing or tenderly swaying my head to the tunes during the whole performance.
Stella definitely did her research, revealing that the biography "Lady Sings the Blues" is mostly fiction starting with the first sentence in the book announcing Billies' parent's marriage – actually they were never married. But Stella doesn't admonish the book adding that the biography is a romanticized, fantasy of Billie's story, what the public actually already imagined and wanted. In between songs Stella recounts tidbits from Billy's life, how her mother opened a restaurant underwritten by one of Billie's well to do musician friends. How Billie could be a lady, demure and very polite, but was also a tough girl who swore like a truck driver and could beat a man up if they were bigots at the bar.
Billie Holiday took her professional name from her father, Clarence Holiday, a guitarist who played with Fletcher Henderson's band in the Nineteen Twenties and from one of the favorite movie actresses of her childhood, Billie Dove. Her biggest influences were Louis Armstrong and the late Bessie Smith. Louis Armstrong being an artistic heartthrob of Stella's as well. The small anecdotes are well placed between songs and sprinkled in just long enough before the music begins anew.
As a tribute to Black History Month Stella closed the performance with "Strange Fruit", a song Billie Holiday, "because of the poignancy of the song, would always close with; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction, Holiday would stand with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer." Stella too asked for a few minutes and recoiled within in meditation before she sang the song and asked that there be no encores.
"Strange Fruit" a biting depiction of a lynching was originated as a poem written by Jewish-American writer, teacher and songwriterAbel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, after seeing a photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, by photographer Lawrence Beitler. The lyrics are under copyright but have been republished in full in an academic journal, with permission.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
If you get a chance support our local gem of an artist Stella Heath and her ensemble by seeing the performance which will also be in San Francisco, Napa, Berkeley and Santa Cruz.
Stella Heath fronts a stellar ensemble of local musicians for a cabaret-style musical tribute to the life and art of the legendary singer Billie Holiday at these venues:
Saturday, March 23rd - 7pm
Red Poppy Art House
Tickets: $20 Advance/$25 Door (seating limited)
2698 Folsom St., San Francisco
Wednesday, April 3rd - 6:30pm & 8:30pm
Blue Note Napa
Billie's 104th Birthday Celebration!!
1030 Main St., Napa
Friday, May 3rd - 8pm
The Back Room
'An intimate place for music'
Tickets: $18 adv/$20 door
1984 Bonita Ave., Berkeley
Friday, May 10th - 8:30pm
Flynn's Cabaret and Steakhouse
Tickets: $15 Adv / $18 show
6279 Hwy 9, Santa Cruz
Review by Ceylan Karasapan Crow
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