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Lady Day, Coltrane House Fundraiser

Ron Scott | 10/10/2013, 3:07 p.m.

There are two facts regarding Billie Holiday:

  1. She is the most controversial singer in the history of jazz.
  2. She remains the best jazz and blues singer to ever walk across a stage.

Today, the only way to comprehend the complicated life of America’s greatest female jazz singer is to see “Lady Day,” starring Dee Dee Bridgewater at the Little Schubert Theater (422 W. 42nd St.). As a singer, Bridgewater wastes no time getting into Holiday’s signature songs “Miss Brown to You,” “Them There Eyes” and “All of Me.”

Bridgewater brings Holiday’s persona to the songs while pulling from her own improvisations, but it is her acting that explodes as she journeys through the tormented singer’s life, making heartbreaking stops as she is abused as a child; goes away to a juvenile detention center; is introduced to heroin; does jail time; and loses her cabaret license.

The two–act play covers a rainy afternoon rehearsal day on a London Theater stage in late August 1954 and the evening’s live concert. The Grammy winner is Holiday; she sings, but that is what she does. Her acting takes you to the edge of life with “Lady Day.” It will be alright to cry, curl your toes or cringe. The dynamic acting of Bridgewater is superb, and the two standing ovations demonstrated the audience’s acceptance.

I feel and hope we are doing Billie justice for all she did in such a short period of time,” noted Bridgewater. “She is one of the most influential singers.” Despite her tormented life, Holiday rose above her demons to become one of the best singers of all time.

This is Bridgewater’s first New York dramatic role. Writer and director Stephen Stahl stated, “When I heard I was doing New York, I waited for Dee Dee, because she was the only one that could do it.”

Bridgewater, the nationally syndicated NPR “JazzSet” host (on WBGO-FM), also played the role some years ago when Stahl was at London’s Piccadilly. During that period, she said that she was possessed by Holiday. “Now I can channel her and leave her on the stage when I go to my dressing room.”

Stahl was inspired to write “Lady Day” in 1979 while sitting at home alone listening to a Holiday recording. “I could relate to pieces of Billie’s life through the abuse and other things,” said Stahl.

The quartet features pianist-music director Bill Jolly, saxophonist Neil Johnson, bassist James Cammack and drummer Jerome Jennings. He shines with his quick wit and crazy, conked hairstyle. David Ayers plays Robert Holiday’s good friend and ego supporter, and Rafael Poueriet plays the assistant stage manager.

“Stephen allowed us to play the music that was there, but we could bring our own experience and improvisations into the show,” said Jolly. “We combined the jazz concert with the theater piece.”

Ten years ago, John Coltrane’s home in Dix Hills, N.Y., where he composed “A Love Supreme,” was on the demolition block. Today, the home is on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. In 2005, the town of Huntington purchased the home and gave the title over to The Friends of the Coltrane Home, dedicated to the restoration of the home for public consumption. The nonprofit organization is headed by John and Alice’s son Ravi Coltrane, his wife, Kathleen Hennessy, and a group of persevering volunteers.