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Apollo Premier’s 'The Blueprint of a Lady'

Subtitled "The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday," a concept of vocalist Nnenna Freelon in collaboration with choreographer, Dancer Ronald K. Brown and his Evidence Dance Company at the Saturday night November 10th, 2007 opening event Jonelle Procope, President of the Apollo Foundation announced this to be "the first Art & Soul presentation of The Apollo Performing Arts Series."

The Apollo Theater event was preceded by a Friday evening"Collaborative Spirit" interview moderated by NJPAC’s Baraka Sele to draw out the performers’ explanation of this piece about Billie Holiday’s life in song and dance. Ms. Sele asked Ms. Freelon where the idea originated? "We all have dreams, Billie intrigued me and remained in my dreams." During her first meeting with Ronald K. Brown they just talked about Billie Holiday then he went to see her do "Them There Eyes." "All I could see was flowers for a gal who was abused," he reported. Ms. Freelon then "let spirit and the body do what it will do," assisting Mr. Brown to translate her vision into dance. "The musicians (we later discovered the following night were Brandon McCune who arranged and performed on piano, Wayne Batchelor-bass, Eric Kennedy-drums) added additional creative energy." Finally Ms. Freelon decided that Billie’s life ought to be a celebration instead of the tragedy and pain that writers previously created as an image of the celebrity - Billie Holiday.

The program notes by Pam Green explain Blueprint as "a multi-arts performance piece based upon the life and legacy of Billie Holiday. It is not biographical . . . uses the lexicon of jazz to tell a universal story of triumph and redemption." The musicians, dancers and Nnenna’s voice "flows like a composition, subtly shifting between body, the eye, the ear, and the heart."

From the first number "I Didn’t Know What Time It Was" (Rogers and Hart) with dancer Clarice Young to the pre-intermission trilogy of "A Letter from the Trees/Strange Fruit/Willow Weep for Me" with Tiffany Jackson and the dance company this Apollo audience was spellbound by the drama and original dance style artistically directed by Ronald K. Brown. My guest Jessie Reiss, a dance aficionado, explained that throughout the evening Brown’s dancers "created a rich tapestry from movements borrowed from traditional African dance and Black American choreographers like Donald McKayle, who was trained in the tradition of Martha Graham, known for her fall-and-recover movements using the upper torso with frenetic arm movements, lyrical turns or expansive jetés from classical ballet that all modern dancers utilize in technique class. Mr. Brown used elaborate solos, duets and intricate stage patterns either across or around the proscenium arch to demonstrate Billie Holiday’s feelings of rejection, the joy of acceptance and specifically pride in recovery of innocence as three dancers surrounded Ms Freelon as she sang plaintively."

This style contrasts with Frankie Manning’s Savoy and Cotton Club dancers that emphasize pair dancing, and sharp looking dance shoes that emit slides and/or tap sounds in time to the music. Ronald K. Brown’s dancers are all barefoot as if dancing on the same dirt of Congo Square, New Orleans circa 1860's.

An exceptional number in the second half Ms. Freelon‘s wearing a Carribean blue sheath dress, standing mostly motionless except for her arms singing "Lover Man," a song I heard writer Ram Ramirez (one of Billie’s accompanist) play many times at uptown Broadway’s West End Café, an impromptu jazz club inspired by then Columbia U student Phil Shaap.

Dancer Ronald K. Brown wearing a tan top and belted brown slacks seamed to seduce Nnenna Freelon with suggestive dance movements finally drawing her across the stage as she sang "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" (Harry Woods). As the two cavorted, Brandon McCunes blues inflected piano and bassist Wayne Batchelor each got solo attention.

The finale "All of Me" (Simon and Marks) included The Company: Arcell Cabuag, Shani Collins, Khetanya Henderson, Otis Donovan Herring, Tiffany Jackson, Juel Lane, Keon Thoulouis and Clarice Young followed by a standing ovation by this responsive Apollo audience.

A Concord Records Blueprint of a Lady - Sketches of Billie Holiday (2289-2) released in 2005 to coincided with the 90th anniversary of Holiday’s birth was co-produced by Concord VP Nick Phillips and recorded, mixed, and mastered entirely at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA, Available on CD she explained then, "Billie Holiday really sang what she had to say in her own way. That’s one of the things that was so impressive about her; she was a survivor, and had an absolutely brilliant, innovative concept of her own. She really sang to her time . . . and so do I." Further explaining the project, "I decided to name this CD a blueprint because I wanted to create a roadmap, using her voice as a musician to build something new. It’s about taking what she stood for as an artist rather than how she sounded."

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Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Nnenna Freelon and Ronald K. Brown
  • Concert Date: 11/10/2007
  • Subtitle: The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday
  • Venue: Apollo Theater
  • City State Country: Harlem, New York
Dan Kassell

Dan Kassell expands his curiosity by attending concerts, conventions, lectures and movies to take note of the History of Jazz from the indigenous Caribes in the Caribbean to Algiers New Orleans, Chicago and New York. As a member of the Jersey Jazz Society since 1972 he's witnessed musicians who learned from jazz's founders. Reviews also appear in, Amazon and and historically in AllAboutJazz-New York, Mississippi Rag or Jersey Jazz since 1972.

First inspired by Thomas "Fats" Waller playing "Your Feet's Too Big," Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert, Louis Armstrong solos, Duke Ellington's Famous Orchestra and Bob Wilber with Marty Gross and Kenny Davern's Soprano Summit he's also became fascinated by the spontaneous improvisation of Free Jazz while working on publicity for Chico Freeman.

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