With the legendary impact left behind by jazz singer Billie Holiday, it is only fitting that her native city continues to uphold her legacy and celebrate her music.
In honor of Holiday, the University’s Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts (BHPLA) hosted its third annual “Jazz in the Square” event on Sept. 11. The concert, held at Lafayette Square Park, featured The Nasar Abadey Quartet and Grammy-nominated artist Maimouna Youssef, better known by her stage name Mumu Fresh. Other Baltimore-based jazz musicians, including students from the Peabody Institute, also performed during the event.
Lawrence Jackson, director of BHPLA, emphasized the significance of the event in an interview with The News-Letter.
“We want to recover and pay homage to what we call America’s native classical music, jazz music,” Jackson said. “Baltimore is one of the premier sites for the creation of jazz music and we want to make sure that we’re honoring it right.”
BHPLA was founded in 2017 to build an archive documenting African American history within Baltimore. According to Jackson, the initiative was created to build relationships between the University and the community.
“[BHPLA] was meant to create circuits of reciprocity and possibility and new ways for us to think about the University community,” Jackson said. “My idea was that a lot of what we need to do is to build relationships and to build them with generosity and humility and with sisterhood and brotherhood.”
Since then, Jackson and his colleagues have hosted research exhibitions, several speaker series and arts programs.
During the event, Baltimore City Councilmember John Bullock gave a brief introduction, stressing that Holiday’s influence persists among younger generations.
“This is a great event because we get to showcase the community,” Bullock said. “We have also looked to rename a local elementary school after Holiday. There’s so much of a legacy in terms of art, music and culture in Baltimore.”
A quintet of Peabody students opened the event, filling the air with the sweet notes of a trumpet, with the saxophone, bass, electric guitar and drums joining in. The music was jovial and engaging, with many spectators clapping and cheering them on.
Following the Peabody students, The Nasar Abadey Quartet graced the stage to keep the air electric with jazz. The quartet consists of drummer Nasar Abadey, bassist Herman Burney, pianist Richard Johnson and trumpeter Sean Jones. Abadey, Johnson and Jones are all members of Peabody’s faculty, and Burney is adjunct faculty at Towson University.
The quartet’s performance created a peaceful energy in the park. Their free-flowing jazz music was a fitting backdrop for the sunny, late summer afternoon.
The main act featured Youssef, who joined the quartet for the latter part of their performance. She performed renditions of some of Holiday’s hits as well as other notable jazz songs.
Youssef’s dynamic voice complemented the quartet’s music as if it were a fifth instrument in the band. She sang without bounds, pouring her emotions into the music. Her rendition of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” was a standout number, and she paid tribute to the song’s legacy with her beautiful and commanding voice.
In an interview with The News-Letter, senior Daphne Moraga recalled the impact of Youssef’s message at the beginning of her performance, in which she discussed the importance of art and music amid the many issues affecting the world.
“Youssef talked about the plight of Black Baltimoreans and all of us in these times of such strife, between one person and their neighbor or communities at large with COVID[-19] and racial violence,” Moraga said. “The versatility of her voice and style was really great, and she made each song her own.”
Moraga stressed that Hopkins students should feel privileged to live in a community where icons like Holiday hailed from.
Freshman Veronica Minney is a big fan of Holiday. She decided to attend the event after seeing it on HopkinsGroups.
“These events are helpful in breaking the Hopkins bubble,” Minney said in an interview with The News-Letter. “I’d love to have more connections to music and art events that are initiated by Hopkins so students are aware of [them].”
Moraga asserted that Hopkins should host more events similar to this to promote an appreciation for the many beautiful aspects of the city among undergraduates.
“That is missing in the dialogue at Hopkins,” Moraga said. “I wish that we were learning about and debunking myths about Baltimore that the media likes to perpetuate. This is a city teeming with love, art, music and struggle, which must be shown too.”
Laura Wadsten contributed reporting to this piece.