Of all the great jazz singers across the decades – and there have been some incredibly great jazz singers – Billie Holiday stands on a very special musical pedestal.
Almost six decades after her untimely death in 1959, Lady Day’s music remains fresh and immediate. Her phrasing, her musicality, her ability to reach into a song and hand it back to you as something brand new; they all combined to make her voice unique and her music timeless.
The Milwaukee Rep will open Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill this Sunday in the Stackner Cabaret. It’s an evening of music and also of story, when Billie Holiday (played by Alexis Rogers) talks about her life on this imagined final concert.
"She made other voices intelligible that we know now. Macy Gray is intelligible because of Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse is intelligible; and the pantheon of all of these new singers that sort of have a sound that, whether they know it or not, pays homage to Billie Holiday," says Abdul Hamid Royal, who plays pianist Jimmy Rogers.
"She also was a jazz innovator in the sense that her vocal was an interesting mixture of voice and instrument, and the way that she used her voice to paint, to shade, to color any tune that she touched," he says.
And she painted these these tunes with a relatively small pallet. Holiday's range was thought to be just a bit more than one octave, paltry compared to other vocalists. But Holiday's career proved that bigger isn't always better. "How many colors do you need to paint a portrait? I mean, you can use a lot of colors not well or you can use the colors that you have in a way that is, in her case, genius," says Royal.
The woman behind Lady Day didn't really picture herself portraying the famed jazz singer, but in some ways she was raised to play the part. Alexis Rogers grew up listening to Billie Holiday songs with her trumpeter father, and would try to copy her distinctive style.
"One of my favorite songs of hers was 'Good Morning Heartache,' and I remember singing that as a kid... trying to emulate her then, you know, so who knew? It actually stuck," says Rogers.
Milwaukee Rep's production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill opens Sunday, September 10, at the Stackner Cabaret and runs through the end of October.