In the summer of 2010, the soul singer Bettye LaVette stepped onstage at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles with a 32-piece string section behind her and performed a four-decade-old song she’d only just learned: the Beatles’ “Blackbird.”
At the time, LaVette was about seven years into a long-overdue career resurgence. As a teenager in the 1960s, she had scored a few memorable R&B hits, including the slinky, aching “Let Me Down Easy,” but she failed to make the kind of impact that many of the artists she came up alongside in Detroit — Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin — enjoyed. To many record collectors, LaVette was a great forgotten singer whose earthy voice could transform any song into something more than even its author imagined. To most everyone else, she was just forgotten.
For decades, she’d had albums shelved, projects scuttled and even one manager shot. LaVette calls this seeming yen for misfortune “buzzard luck,” but beginning around 2003, her fortunes began to change with a string of critically acclaimed albums.
Preparing for the Beatles tribute, her husband, Kevin Kiley, suggested she perform “Blackbird.” “I’d never heard the song before in my life,” LaVette said in a phone call from her home in West Orange, N.J., where she has been riding out the coronavirus pandemic. “Kevin played it for me and I said, ‘I wonder if people know he’s talking about a Black woman?’”
Performing to a packed crowd 10 years ago, LaVette felt a deep connection to the signature lyric. “I just said, ‘All my life I’ve waited for this moment to arrive.’ That is exactly how I felt.”
LaVette rejiggered the song into the first-person, slowed the tempo to a crawl and added a bed of strings. Her wholesale reinvention of the classic tune became the foundation for an album that would take another decade to blossom. “Blackbirds,” due Friday, is a collection of songs celebrating the formative work of — as LaVette calls them — “black birds.” All the songs, save for the Beatles song that inspired it, were originally popularized by Black female singers, including Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.
“These women are the first Black women singers I heard,” she said. “Knowing what all these women went through, I can find myself in each of the songs because I’m a black bird too.”
Please click on link above for full article.
Helen Jones Woods
Member of an All-Female Jazz Group, Dies at 96.
She played trombone in the multiracial International Sweethearts of Rhythm, but later put down her horn forever. She died of the coronavirus.
Helen Jones Woods was an African-American jazz musician who toured the country, including the Jim Crow South, in the 1930s and ’40s. This could be the start of a familiar story of racism on the road. But Ms. Woods’s journey has some distinctive wrinkles.
Ms. Woods played trombone in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female, multiracial ensemble so anomalous that the white members had to wear blackface in the South to avoid trouble.
When the group split up in 1949 — bruised by the road and feeling exploited financially — Ms. Woods found the classical world no less racist. After her first performance with the Omaha Symphony, her father, who did not share her light complexion, picked her up, tipping off the orchestra that she was not white.
“They fired her,” said Ms. Woods’s daughter Cathy Hughes, a founder and chairperson of Urban One, a media company that focuses on Black culture. “She never touched her horn again.”
Ms. Woods died on July 25 of the coronavirus in a hospital in Sarasota, Fla., her daughter said. She was 96.
“I was absolutely stunned and speechless (I’m never speechless) when I learned I was receiving the award. What an honor to be in such great company of others that have received it and to be acknowledged in such a big way for the work I love to do in jazz. I will continue my work to the best of my ability as long as I’m allowed to.”
Dorthaan Kirk has been a major force at WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM, Newark Public Radio—the only full-time jazz format station in New York and New Jersey—working in various roles for more than four decades. Called “Newark’s First Lady of Jazz,” Kirk has been active as a curator and producer of jazz events primarily in and around Newark, New Jersey, and is an avid supporter of musicians and jazz education for children.
Kirk grew up in Texas and lived in California before moving to the East Coast in 1970 with husband Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a jazz great known for playing multiple horns simultaneously, whose career she managed. Kirk was already a jazz fan before marriage, but her husband introduced her to more musicians and new venues, and she became more knowledgeable about jazz history through him.
When her husband died unexpectedly in 1977 at age 41, Kirk wanted to continue to work in the jazz business. She was introduced to Bob Ottenhoff, who was working on getting the Newark Board of Education to transfer their underutilized broadcast license to create the first public radio station in New Jersey, as a full-time jazz station. Ottenhoff hired Kirk as one of the original employees that launched WBGO in 1979. Before retiring in 2018, Kirk was the special events and community relations coordinator; the curator of the station’s art gallery, which is open to the public; and managed the annual WBGO Jazz-a-thon as well as the WBGO Children’s Jazz Series, which offers free jazz concerts by top-name musicians specifically for young people since 1993.
Kirk has been active for decades in the Newark community presenting jazz events. In 2000, she coordinated with the Rev. Dr. M. William Howard Jr. of the Bethany Baptist Church in Newark to present free-of-charge monthly Jazz Vespers, live jazz events during the months from October to June, that have featured nationally renowned performers, such as Jimmy Heath, Jon Faddis, and Gregory Porter. Since 2012, Kirk has been the consultant producer for a monthly jazz brunch series titled Dorthaan’s Place in her honor at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Nico Kitchen & Bar in Newark. In addition to recruiting talent, she has also acted as master of ceremonies for these events.
She continues to be the keeper of the flame of her late husband’s musical legacy: managing his music; acting as administrator of his publishing company; and organizing special events in his honor, such as the tribute at St. Peter’s Church in New York City in December 2007.
Kirk has been the recipient of numerous awards from the City of East Orange, City of Newark, and New Jersey State Assembly for her community-based initiatives in the arts. In 2013, she received the Humanitarian Award from the American Conference on Diversity, Essex County Chapter. For her 80th birthday in 2018, the Dorthaan Kirk Scholarship Opportunity Fund was created to support jazz students in the Newark area.
Annie Ross 1930–2020
Annie Ross, a British-American vocalist who was among the most celebrated jazz singers of the 1950s and a noted character actress and cabaret singer in her later years, died July 21 at her home in New York City. She was four days shy of her 90th birthday.
Annie Ross, Birdland, NYC, September 2015 (photo: Jeff Tamarkin)