To identify the most obvious aspect of Billie Holiday’s legacy, Nnenna Freelon says you need only ask yourself one question.
“What is this thing called jazz singer… she almost single-handedly defined the genre.”
Holiday’s unusual voice and new approaches to phrasing and rhythm set her apart. But it was her intensely personal delivery that most inspired audiences and fellow singers.
“She is my muse. She’s that little angel sitting on my shoulder. And never once has she said to me “Baby you need to sing it my way.” Not once. I feel pushed by her life story and by what I know about her to really make it honest and real and make it Nnenna Freelon.”
Keeping it real has helped earn Freelon 5 Grammy nominations. Her latest CD is a collection of classic Billie Holiday songs.
“And I’m re-imagining our arrangement of God Bless The Child as a modern statement of independence. It’s not a mournful version. It’s almost celebrating the fact that the one who has it together, who’s independent, who has his own – whatever that means – that’s the one God smiles on.”
Nnenna Freelon says the title of her 2-night show in Davis offers a clue of what’s to come. It’s called “Blueprint of a Lady: The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday.”
“It’s the “once and future life,” so you’ll hear echoes of the past, but I’m also dreaming… what is Billie Holiday’s legacy in 2005. What has she left us? What are we still chewing on?”
And Freelon adds even more to chew on by including dance choreographed by Ronald K. Browne and visual art displays by the late collagist Romare Bearden. Inspiration for the collaboration came from Holiday herself and the times in which she lived, the Harlem Renaissance.
“There was just this explosion of the arts on every level, visual arts, writers, all of this. It was just an incredibly vibrant and exciting time period. And she was right in the middle of it. And so I thought, you know, I really would like to incorporate movement, image and music.”
Freelon says her show is not a linear telling of Lady Day’s life story. It’s impressionist and celebrates above all Billie Holiday’s spirit.
“People say Oh I love Billie Holiday and might come with an expectation of hearing echoes of her in my voice or the arrangements. That will not be the case. We are imagining what would Billie be about, she would’ve been 90 if she were still with us. She’d have been on the cuttin’ edge of whatever there was.”
Blue Print of a Lady: The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday, featuring Nnenna Freelon plays Friday and Saturday at the Mondavi Center, which also co-commissioned the work.