The Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts (BHPLA) and Hopkins at Home hosted “Baltimore's Billie Holiday: A Musical Tribute to Lady Day” on Saturday, Sept. 19. The online concert honored the Baltimore native legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday. Though BHPLA hosted its inaugural tribute concert in West Baltimore’s Lafayette Square last year, this year’s concert was adapted to an online format as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
When I set aside an hour on a busy Saturday afternoon to watch the concert on my widescreen monitor, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This was my first ever live online concert. One thing I was initially afraid of was that I would feel disconnected from the performance and that this experience wouldn’t be too different from what I would get just watching a music video on YouTube. But having been a fan of Holiday’s music for a long time, I decided to go and see for myself what a live online concert was like.
Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Lawrence Jackson, the founder and director of BHPLA, welcomed the audience and gave opening remarks that connected Saturday’s tribute jazz concert to the broader task of fostering a more unified and inclusive Baltimore.
“Obviously we’re not in Lafayette Square this year, but next year we will be back. I can guarantee it,” he said.
“It’s very important for us to make sure that [this is] a free, public concert that is available to everyone, and that it creates the Baltimore we dream of, the one that perhaps never has happened so far but is one that if we work hard enough and join forces, we can bring about,” Jackson said.
Subsequently, the musicians were brought on stage — Nasar Abadey on drums, Sean Jones on trumpet, Herman Burney on bass and Allyn Johnson on piano. Abadey and Jones are Peabody faculty, while Johnson is the director of Jazz Studies at the University of the District of Columbia. Vocalist Maimouna Youssef was brought out on stage for the second half of the concert.
What I liked about this part of the concert, before any of the music had even started, was the sense of familiarity that the scene presented; friends greeted each other naturally and donned masks as they sat down at their instruments. The fact that I was in Baltimore at the same time as these performers gave the concert an even more immediate feeling.
A compelling set of jazz performances followed, some of which were energetic interpretations of classic jazz standards and some of which were sensitive renditions of Holiday’s own songs.
The first performance featured Abadey, Johnson, Burney and Jones in an energetic number. Solos on the trumpet were handed off to piano and then bass before returning to the trumpet to bring in the original theme. This served as an interesting counterpoint to the following performance, which was relaxed blues.
After this, Youssef joined the jazz quartet on stage to give lovely performances of some of Holiday’s most well-known songs. First of these was an extended rendition of “God Bless the Child,” followed by the sensuous “Lover Man.” Youssef demonstrated incredible sensitivity in finding ways to emulate Holiday’s signature vocal delivery while also maintaining her own personal style. Aside from showing off her impressive range, she managed to capture Holiday’s technique of drawing out her vowels and sliding between notes, which were hallmarks of her artistry. However, Youssef’s voice had a gentler and smoother quality to it that somewhat contrasted with Holiday’s voice.
Following these two songs, Youssef sang Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” arguably her most influential song. Before beginning to sing, Youssef brought attention to the context in which the song was written, when the Jim Crow era was at its height.
“It’s a powerful song. It’s as relevant now as it was then,” she said.
Youssef’s abilities shone through in this poignant performance. Johnson’s piano accompaniment complemented her voice well, and their duet managed to bring out the same kinds of complex emotions that characterized Holiday’s version. At the moment she sang the word “drop” at the climax of the song, time seemed to stand still before she slid down from that high note down to her lower register, maximizing emotional gravitas.
Youssef then performed an original called “Shine Your Light.” After trading musical phrases with Jones’ muted trumpet, the song shifted gears into a fast-paced section that featured Youssef’s scat singing.
For the final performance the quartet played the jazz standard “Alone Together,” an apt way to end the concert.
Despite the digital platform of the concert, something I noticed was that the stage felt intimate and close. The lighting was low, and the camera zoomed in and shifted between the performers during the course of the concert. The sound mixing was also well done; I could hear everything very clearly.
Senior Yoseph Kim decided to attend the concert on a whim and was unfamiliar with Holiday’s music.
“The musicians were really good. I didn’t really know Billie Holiday, but I really liked the songs, so I’m more interested now. I could listen to them all day,” Kim said.
Senior Eugene Asare praised the online format.
“The online format makes it a lot more accessible to people and made it feel like I was listening to a playlist or an album due to the high audio quality,” he said.
However, like me, Asare admitted that he was unsure of how the live online concert would turn out at first.
“The online format of the concert had me worried initially,“ he said. “This was my first online concert. However, the performances really came through well, the quality was amazing, and the performances were really good. It also gave me nostalgia from my high school days when I was in jazz band.”
Online events like “Baltimore's Billie Holiday: A Musical Tribute to Lady Day” are testaments to the power of human ingenuity in adapting to change. These performances are helping people stay connected to Hopkins and the wider community, and I couldn’t be more grateful that I stumbled on this event. Holiday herself lived in Baltimore during a time of immense change, and I think it’s beautiful that her music is helping us weather these times “alone together.”