Monday, July 22, 2013

The Women of Jazz and Blues Part II

The Women of Jazz and Blues Part II

The courage of the black lady singers to stand up and be counted in a white man’s world contributed to the ultimate end of segregation and helped inspire the liberation of all women. Not just from the prejudices of a white man’s world—the blues genre was dominated by black males who had to get used to the emergence of powerful women in the music. 

Blues song writer, Ida Cox, expressed in her song Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues the new independence of women from their men, especially those who treated them bad. 

“I've got a disposition and a way of my own.
When my man starts kicking I let him find another home.
I get full of good liquor, walk the streets all night,
Go home and put my man out if he don't act right.
Wild women don't worry, wild women don't have the blues.”

When Pamela Polland created the Melba Rounds show in the 70's, she was partly riding the wave of women’s liberation pioneered by the blues women who were an inspiration for the movement. She also featured popular songs of the twenties, like Don’t Blame Me by blues singer Ethel Waters. Ethel, a versatile performer, was also the highest paid performer on Broadway in the 30's, starred in movies, one of which, “Cabin in the Sky (1943),” gets shown occasionally on late night TV. Ethel is one of a group of many singers who traveled the raunchy side of the street singing the blues like her famous 1928 record Handy Man. Pamela also covered this one. “Sometimes he's up long before dawn, Busy trimming the rough edges off my lawn; Oooh, you can't get away from it! He's such a handy man!”

These were known as “race records,” not sold to white audiences.

From Ethel Waters, Pamela’s Melba Rounds show learned what became a theme of the Harlem Renaissance: I’ve Got Harlem on My Mind. It became one of the show’s signature songs. Written about Josephine Baker pining for home while she lived the life of a successful cabaret star in Paris, it is an example of the crosscurrents of culture already happening in the music and theater business. The song was written by the famous Jewish hit song writer Irving Berlin.

Later in life, Ethel crossed back over to join the gospel singers on the “good side of the street” singing and praising the Lord. When Chappell was a little girl, her minister father took the family to the Four Square Gospel Church in Los Angeles to hear Ethel Waters perform at a revival. In the middle of her famous gospel hit, His Eyes are on the Sparrow, the then elderly and very large Ethel collapsed behind the podium and was carried out. Chappell never forgot it.
As music fans know already, Billie Holiday was the most well-known of the black female singers from pre-rock and roll days. Not often thought of as a blues singer, it was her interpretations of standards that captured the hearts of listeners, such as Trav’lin’ Light, which went to number one for Billie on the Harlem Hit Parade.  Chappell and I still love to perform this one in our live show. Billie co-wrote one of her big standard hits, Good Morning Heartache, with Arthur Herzog, Jr. Pamela Polland and I performed Duke Ellington’s In My Solitude inspired by Billie’s brooding and sensitive rendition. 

Pamela’s Melba Rounds Show often brought down the house, which was usually her regular club, The Palms Café in San Francisco, (see film of the Palms show). She created a fresh interpretation of I Cover the Waterfront that inspired me to come up with an unique piano arrangement. This song had been a “hit single,” a ’78 release for Billie in 1944, became a hit for Pamela, and has appeared in Chappell and Dave’s repertoire alongside Dave’s tribute Billie’s Blues. This original Chappell & Dave tune tells about Billie’s life moving from the streets to the stage.

When Billie joined Artie Shaw’s orchestra in 1938, she was the first black woman to sing with a white orchestra. When she bravely undertook the song “Strange Fruit,” it provided further fuel to her cult of fame. Few singers are willing to interpret this lyric describing the lynching of a black man in the American South. Like the “wild” blues women before her, Billie Holiday was a pioneer and a trail blazer. This was a reason their music had a resurgence in the 70's. Local Bay Area favorite, Alice Stuart (see picture of her 1972 Fantasy Records release below), is experiencing a current revival, bringing new fans to her blues originals. Visit 

The women blues and jazz singers have left us a rich treasure trove of music to inspire musicians and singers of all eras to come. By studying styles that moved music fans in the past, we learn the power of the well placed word and melody. I matured musically by blending blues with other popular styles to create the language I think most adequately expressed my life experience. From this launching pad, the music propelled me into forward motion and growth as a musician. You too can bring the wisdom of the past to bear on the present and expand the genre of Americana. So, take some time to explore and discover the “jazzy side of Americana.”

(Illustrations of Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters are © Chappell Holt)

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