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The JazzWest Blogs: Kim Nalley
About the Author

Named one of the "Ten Most Influential African Americans in the Bay Area," Kim Nalley is hailed as one of world's best jazz & blues singers. Visit Kim online at kimnalley.com.

Recent Posts

Posted on May 19, 2015:

Jazz Singer, or Just "The Help"?

Posted on April 16, 2015:

Rethinking Billie Holiday on Her Centennial

Posted on March 30, 2015:

A Priceless Gift of Art... and Love

Posted on March 4, 2015:

Gloria: Not Just Another "Face in the Crowd"

Posted on February 4, 2015:

Singing The Truth for Trayvon Martin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  Browse all posts...

Posted on January 20, 2015:

In A Digital World, An Old-Fashioned Postcard Can Be A Joy!

Posted on January 12, 2015:

It's Who I Am, Not Just What I Do

Posted on December 25, 2014:

The Ghosts of Corporate Christmas Party Gigs Past

Posted on December 10, 2014:

Mariah & Me: The Art (and the Craft) of Singing Live

Posted on September 2, 2013:

On Singers "Sitting In" and the Importance of Female Mentorship in Jazz

Posted on July 29, 2013:

Florida Goddam... Thoughts on Race, Music and Trayvon Martin

Posted on July 15, 2013:

The Secrets of a Successful Singer: The Art (and Craft) of 'Woodshedding'

Posted on July 1, 2013:

Raising Voices in Support of San Francisco City College

Posted on April 1, 2013:

Music To Birth Babies By... One Mom's List

Posted on February 1, 2013:

The Joys of Singing Gershwin

Posted on November 8, 2012:

Illegal, Immoral, Insensitive... or Just A Matter of Technology?

Posted on May 27, 2012:

"I Can't Get Started"... My Early Days as an Aspiring Singer

Posted on January 23, 2012:

True Confessions of a Pregnant Jazz Singer

Posted on January 3, 2012:

Need to Sharpen Your Vocal Skills? There's an App for That...

Posted on February 28, 2011:

My Last Gig with Jazz Legend Allen Smith

Posted on January 31, 2011:

An Old-Fashioned, Bona Fide Rent Party

Posted on November 1, 2010:

Life is Short and Difficult... Carpe Diem!

Posted on October 11, 2010:

Books, Best Friends, and an Impromptu Café Concert

Posted on August 16, 2010:

25 Things I Wish Somebody Told Me When I Was 18

Posted on July 28, 2010:

Packing 101: Tips from a Time-Tested Traveler

Posted on July 6, 2010:

33 Early Jazz Influences (because 25 is SO FaceBook)

Posted on March 23, 2010:

Music from the Streets

Posted on February 1, 2010:

Chick Webb: The Forgotten Little Giant

Posted on December 28, 2009:

A Christmas Quandary for the Bay Area Jazz Vocalist

Posted on December 4, 2009:

When Is a Friend Not Really a Friend?

Posted on November 6, 2009:

Q&A with Jazz Singer & Ex-Pat Daline Jones

Posted on September 8, 2009:

The Great American Music Hall Saga, Part II

Posted on August 27, 2009:

Tough Times for Jazz Festivals

Posted on August 19, 2009:

Blue Mondays

Posted on July 31, 2009:

Google Alerts, Birthday Wishes and a Few Pulled Strings

Posted on July 13, 2009:

Jazz That Makes You Wanna Get Up & Dance

Posted on July 1, 2009:

Gigantism in Jazz: Is Bigger Always Better?

Posted on June 25, 2009:

The Jazz Pantheon & the Cult of Celebrity

Posted on June 4, 2009:

Getting Recognized in Public: "You Look So Normal..."

Posted on May 27, 2009:

When is a Monitor NOT a Monitor?

Posted on May 14, 2009:

Bittersweet Memories of Mothers Day 2001

Posted on May 12, 2009:

When is a Jazz Singer NOT a Jazz Singer?

Posted on May 5, 2009:

A Mystery Resolved: Why Jazz Singers Do So Many Covers

Posted on April 29, 2009:

True Confessions of a Jazz Singer's Husband

Posted on April 29, 2009:

True Confessions of a Jazz Singer's Husband

Posted on April 10, 2009:

Denise Perrier's Fine Form the "Second Time Around"

Posted on March 23, 2009:

The Blessings of a Struggling Artist

Posted on March 10, 2009:

A Star Is Born, Part II: The Autograph Mafia

Posted on March 8, 2009:

A Star Is Born, Part I: Signing Autographs

Posted on March 2, 2009:

I'm Beginning to See the Light...

Posted on February 25, 2009:

BJ Papa & Friends in the Early 1980s

Posted on February 25, 2009:

BJ Papa (1936-2008): A Musician Remembered

Posted on February 23, 2009:

Valentine's Day for the Working Jazz Singer

Posted on February 16, 2009:

Memorial Services for Publicist Ave Montague

Posted on February 12, 2009:

New Vince Guaraldi Documentaries in the Works

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015 at 11:33 am

Jazz Singer or "The Help"?

A recent speech by Mellody Hobson entitled "Color Blind or Color Brave?" has been making quite a splash in the news.

[In her speech, Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, one of the largest African-American-owned money management firms in the United States, talks about racial profiling in everyday life, and the impact it has on people. It's a "conversational third rail," she says in this engaging, persuasive speech in the popular, often controversial "Ted Talks" series. "If we truly believe in equal rights and equal opportunity in America," says Hobson, "we need to have real conversations about this issue. We can’t be color blind, we have to be color brave." Ed.]

Racial profiling is an important topic that has engulfed the country. While Ms. Hobson's experience is not on the level of Freddie Gray and other similar atrocities (Gray was a 25-year-old African-American man who was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department and subsequently died while being transported in a police van; six Baltimore police officers were arrested and charged in Gray's death), it is still very important. When Ms. Hobson went to a high-powered lunch in which she was an important guest, she checked in at the front desk, was mistaken for the "help" and led to the back, where she was asked, "Where is your uniform?"

I can relate. I am habitually mistaken for the help. Usually, it is the hostess where I happen to be performing who makes this all-too-frequent mis-identification.

Between sets or after my concerts, I sit at an autograph table stacked with CDs, a clipboard for my mailing list, and a sign with my face on it. Invariably, someone will come up to me and announce, "Party of two," expecting to be seated. At first, this would absolutely shock me when it happened. I am sitting next to a larger-than-life billboard with my face on it and people do not recognize me? I have often been told I look better in person than in photos, so that is not the issue. Yet here I am, wearing a full-length evening gown with a face full of makeup every time I perform, so that is not the issue, either.

(It is one of the reasons why I overdress and wear flowers in my hair. The staff is not likely to be wearing sequins. And as nice as it is to think I wear a flower in my hair because of Billie Holiday, it is mostly so people recognize that I am the singer and not part of the service staff.)

Yet despite all of these clues, some people still mess up. At one club I had so many people ask me to validate their parking tickets that it became a running gag with the bartenders. What is especially telling is that most of these people are here to see MY show. Granted, they are usually the people who are coming to the second show and have not stared at me for 90 minutes, but they have purchased tickets, dressed up, maybe even procured a babysitter, etc., to spend an evening with me and yet do not recognize me when I'm seated right in front of them? Usually there are White people helping me sell CDs and the actual host/hostess is nearby but they bypass those people to ask me to help them.

What it tells me is that people do not really see Black people. I know there is that old joke that we all look alike, but it is more than that. It has been ingrained upon us to view people of color in certain way, with a certain station. Onstage I am a fabulous diva, but offstage I am just another Black girl. In other words, the "help."

When they realize I am the headliner, people are very apologetic. They blush and stammer. "Of course you are the jazz singer! How silly of me, Ms. Nalley!"

Being an entertainer is one of the accepted roles for Black people. It is not a stretch. I am not turning over new ground in Black history by being a jazz singer. Owning a jazz club, however, was a different story. When I owned Pearl's in San Francisco, sometimes irate customers stared at me incredulously and accused me of lying.

"There has to be someone above you and I want to talk to them!"

"No, I am sorry sir, the buck stops here."

They were not used to seeing Black women in my role, and when confronted with it they still could not believe it. Mellody Hobson is one of only two black women who are CEOs of publicly traded companies. She is a trailblazer, and I am sure there are not many people who look at her and automatically think CEO.

An ex once told me being white meant not having to think about race unless they chose to. I believe he was weary of race constantly being an issue in our interracial relationship. In school I often say semi-jokingly, "For Karl Marx it was all about class, and for me it is all about race."

We cannot hide behind colorblindness. It is important to talk about race and it is important to accept and admit that all of us in some way have been co-opted by our history of racism.

Thursday, April 16, 2015 at 3:53 pm

Rethinking Billie Holiday on Her Centennial

It is the centennial of the birth of the woman whose name is eponymous with the words "jazz singer" — Billie Holiday. Her legacy is so ingrained that although she was neither the first nor last to wear a flower in her hair, the sight of a songstress with a flower in her hair will invariably evoke Billie.

The Great Triumvirate of vocal jazz — Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan — were the most creatively fertile women in their field. The fruits of their creative genius have set the vocal standard so high, that no other jazz singer since has come close to dethroning the memory of their musicianship. Of the Great Triumvirate of Jazz singers, Billie is the oldest, and her career started several years before Ella (the second oldest of the trio).

Unlike the others, the sensationalism around Billie's personal life is legion. Long before gossip blogs existed, and long before the word "paparazzi" was coined, the public's interest in the lurid details of her life dominated and has in many ways diminished her legacy. Few biographical sketches avoid delving into her "penchant" for abusive men and her "self destructive" drug use (I recently read a terrible piece on Holiday that attributed her music interpretation of "Lover Man" to a longing for heroin).

I do not see same attention given Miles Davis' or Charlie Parker's abusive relationships and their drug use. Their "women" are not given a megaphone to comment on them, and I never have seen their musical genius attributed to drug use. The double standard is beyond sexist. I sometimes see the hardships of being a Black man highlighted, but I do not see the same courtesy given to Miss Holiday.

So I would like to write a few paragraphs, putting her life within a larger historical context.

Billie Holiday was born on April 17, 1915, in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore. Baltimore was not a residentially segregated town in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, but by the 1900s thousands of African Americans migrated into cites looking for work and safety. Baltimore had become segregated by the turn of the century, and the construction of the B&O Railroad displaced African Americans into already-filled slums so that overcrowding and lack of sanitation caused an outbreak of typhoid and tuberculosis of epic proportions (one Black neighborhood was grimly nicked named "Lung Block"). Urbanization, industrialization, and economic depression in Baltimore concentrated in a growing population of the poor, the sick, and the uneducated. By the 1910s, the decade of Billie's birth, several residential ordinances passed by so-called "progressives" bolstered by Social Darwinist ideology made residential segregation both de facto and du jure. Baltimore became the poster child of a highly segregated city. This was the world Billie was born into in 1915.

Billie's neighborhood was called "Pigtown." Here is how it was described:

"Open drains, great lots filled with high weeds, ashes and garbage accumulated in the alleyways, cellars filled with filthy black water, houses that are total strangers to the touch of whitewash or scrubbing brush, human bodies that have been strangers for months to soap and water, villainous looking negroes who loiter and sleep around the street corners and never work; vile and vicious women, with but a smock to cover their black nakedness, lounging in the doorways or squatting upon the steps, hurling foul epithets at every passerby; foul streets, foul people, in foul tenements filled with foul air; that's 'Pigtown'."

Billie was the offspring of a one-night dalliance between 16-year-old Clarence Halliday and 18-year-old mother Sarah (Sadie) Harris (nee Fagan). They were never married and did not appear to have much of a relationship beyond the encounter that created baby Eleanora. Jobs for Black women were limited and Sadie had difficulty finding work as a live-in maid because White families usually did not let the Black children of their live-in maids live with them. Consequentially, Billie intermittently did not live with her mother.

On the occasions when she did live with her mother, they, like many poor or African Americans residents of the time, lived in boarding houses. In 1925, Billie was living with her mother in a Baltimore boardinghouse when a much older boarder at the residence raped her. Billie was 11 years old. The man was arrested, and Billie was placed in protective custody at a reform school called the "House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls." This reform school is often described as a prison, and "fallen women" were frequently placed there. There are several accounts of abuse and girls running away. Her mother had to hire a lawyer in order to get Billie released. And so Billie's first brush with the law as a pubescent child results in her being locked up even though she was the one victimized and raped.

When Billie turned 13, Sadie began working at a "proper" whorehouse in New York and sent for her daughter to come stay with her and work as a prostitute. Within months, Billie was arrested, and because she gave a false age to the police she was tried and convicted as an adult. After doing four months' time on Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), she was released in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression. Billie decided to stop turning tricks and instead place her bets on getting a job as an entertainer.

(Remember: Holiday, as a very young teenager, had been transported across state lines to work as a child sex slave by her mother! We often forget how young 12 or 13 is when we speak of African Americans. Even today the law increasingly treats Black and Brown children like adults. I encourage people to watch "Pretty Baby" with 12-year-old Brooke Shields so they can get the full visceral impact of youth forced into prostitution and afford the same emotions for Holiday.)

Billie said that she had always sung: "I always knew I could sing, I just didn't know I could make money at it." So instead of singing in New York, she auditioned as a dancer at Pod's and Jerry's club, but danced poorly. At the suggestion of the pianist at the audition, she sang a song and was immediately hired. She changed her last name to Holiday in order to capitalize on her father, who was a guitarist in one of the most respected Black big bands, Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra.

What was even more amazing about this decision to embrace singing was Billie's fortitude in turning rotten lemons into lemonade. She grabbed control of her life at the tender of age of 14 so that she coul become a professional singer.

It is important to not have any illusions about what the jazz life was back then. There was a prohibition on alcohol in the United States in 1929 and it did not end until 1933. Her gigs were speakeasies run by gangsters who specialized in the transport and sale of illegal bootleg substances. These clubs were no Jazz at Lincoln Center or SF Jazz Center or any other type of reputable music venue. She grew up in a rough world full of hustlers and gangsters. It was no small wonder, then, that she attached herself to "tough" men. These were the type of men who could protect her in these environments. There was no other option. Women and bands were property that could be passed from one owner to another. There was no choice involved. It was simple necessity. Legally married women of any race during this time could not own property, nor even enter into contract.

During Billie's time at the Café Society, a hip Village bar filled with intellectuals, bohemians and artists, there was further evidence of her fortitude, resilience and courage. In 1939 she was introduced to, and began performing, the song "Strange Fruit," an anti-lynching protest song written by Jewish writer Abel Meeropol. This song catapulted Billie into a new type of stardom. She was no longer just the singer of sentimental love songs; she became a race woman: an outspoken proponent of civil rights over a decade before the Civil Rights Era had officially begun.

What is less thought about is the song's Communist background. Meeropol was a Communist who, like most communists at the time, believed in racial equality. He is also famous for adopting the Rosenberg children, whose parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed for passing nuclear information to the Soviets even though the United States and the USSR were WWII allies at the time. "Strange Fruit" began as a poem printed in a teacher's union paper under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. The song was also printed as a poem in New Masses, a Marxist magazine. How much persecution did Meeropol face as a White Jewish man that compelled him to publish it under pseudonym?

In contrast, Holiday was Black woman who sang it in person and attached her livelihood to it. It is important to not overlook the fact that Communism was active in promoting civil rights and racial equality. The connection between the Communism and racial equality was so strong that during the McCarthy Era people working for racial equality were summarily labeled communist or at the very least "pinkos." There are several accounts of artistic careers ruined during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Those years coincided with the last decade of Billie Holiday's life and career. The perils she faced for singing that song were very real.

All in all, her career spanned 30 years. She recorded from her teens until her death in 1959. There are very few artists, especially vocalists, who can claim a recording career with such length. Shirley Horn, Etta Jones, Jimmie Scott, Alberta Hunter and many others fell out of the spotlight for decades before making much-heralded "comebacks." While much ado is made over the changes in Billie's voice over the decades, any classical vocal student can tell you that a voice, like an athlete, peaks at a certain age and declines despite one's best efforts to preserve it. Ruth Brown's voice in her older years is unrecognizable from her youth but like a master artist, Brown developed a different technique and approach to her different sound.

Unlike Ruth Brown, Billie's vocal change was often accompanied by accusations of self-destruction, but I myself admire the genius of her later years. It is a study in minimalism and breath control. Her attack is pointed and fierce. Her lyricism is resplendent. The improvisation is so great that the melody is at times unrecognizable from the published sheet music, yet so direct and simple that her improvisation is more melodic than the original melody.

(Her penultimate album, "Lady in Satin," was "borrowed" from my own musical collection and never returned so often that I purchased it eight times before the digital world rendered such extended loans impossible. It was never Billie's early material that was taken; always the older material. Billie once said she felt like she was playing a horn, yet we often fail to accord her music with the same seriousness as horn players. Her musical offerings are on par with John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and should be recognized as such; calling Billie Holiday a "blues singer" is like calling Parker a "blues player," in my personal opinion.)

The next time you read an article on Billie Holiday's life, remember that she was a genius who battled virulent segregation, racism, sexism, rape, molestation and sexual abuse. She was trafficked into child sexual slavery in the 20th century and possibly was even sterilized against her will due to the eugenic politics in place during her time. She was a survivor who was unafraid to speak out on racism and socio-political inequality. Somehow Holiday took the crap she given and grew violets for her furs. She truly is one of the most important artists of the 20th century.


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