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(Published: December 15, 2018)

If enjoying a female vocalist perform live, is your cup of tea, then, downtown Durham, North Carolina, at the Fruit and Produce Company, was the place to be, December 3rd through December 10th, 2018. Duke Performances called it "an eight-day festival of women working in the jazz tradition." Its excellent line up featured "la crème de crème," eight professional ladies, from the young to the not-so-young, from ages 27-years-old to 63-years-old, who performed each night (two sets 7pm and 9pm). They were: Nnenna Freelon (12/3/2018) (62-years-old); Cecile McLorin Salvant (12/4/2018) (29-years-old); Nellie McKay (12/5/2018) (36-years-old); Catherine Russell (12/6/18) (62-years-old); Jazzmeia Horn (12/7/18) (27-years-old); Rene Marie (12/8/18) (63-years-old); Kate McGarry (12/9/18) (48-years-old) and Lucinda Williams (12/10/18) (65-years-old).

In addition to hip shows provided by these superb singers, the event included a panel discussion, performances by the North Carolina Central University Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and art work by Durham-based visual artist, Stacy Lynn Waddell. The well-attended, almost-packed-every-night affair was an awakening to the squares, the clueless souls, the naysayers, the ones who are "wishful thinkers," who wish the music would disappear. These are corny folks who say that "jazz" is dead, or that it is for "old folks." There were some "old folks" there, at the festival, but, there were some "not so old folks" there too. It plainly proved that there is such a thing as a vibrant, aware, happy, thoroughly-satisfied audience that could support live jazz events, and that the growing Triangle North Carolina area (Raleigh, Durham. Chapel Hill, Cary) is and has always been, a fertile ground for American Classical Music, commonly called "jazz."

Durham resident, Nnenna Freelon, and her trio, started off the festivities, Monday night, December 3, 2018, with her two sizzling sets, to a standing room only crowd. She treated the home town to a program that went from swinging and slow sensuous standards to tunes "from the 70s," like "Betcha By Golly Wow!." The audience loved her and she loved them. Smiles galore, that night, on the faces of the people enjoying themselves and on the faces on the stage. She kept smiling and singing. Her first-class show set the pace for the entire eight-day event.

Nnenna was followed the next night, Tuesday night, December 4, 2018, with solid performances from one of the most-sought-after singers in today's music scene. Cecile McLorn Salvant, and her trio, has performed in Durham, for Duke Performances, at least two times in the past. This time she performed with pianist Sullivan Fortner, who almost stole the show with his distinctive joyful-sounding New Orleans-feeling notes. His forceful, full-fisted piano chops helped her shine. She has a silky wonderful unique style and is a master at holding a note until it almost breaks. Her rendition of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" was as original as it gets. She sang the word "love' four times in a row, and each sounded different and more urgent than the one that came before. What a voice! She sounds like Sarah Vaughan, Chaka Khan, Nancy Wilson and Gladys Knight all rolled in one. She was treated royally, and she received several warm ovations.

Wednesday night, December 5, 2018, London-born, New York City-based, Broadway actress, vocalist Nellie McKay, and her group, performed. She has been called "a genius in the jazz world, able to swirl together cutting comedy and caustic commentary with a voice charming enough to make bitter pills go down like sweet nothings." That night on stage, talking, playing a piano, the ukulele and singing, she called herself an "Irish" singer who enjoyed doing "jazz" tunes. She and her band-an upright-bassist and a drummer, sounded like they would have been perfect for Broadway or a cabaret show. Their music was enjoyed by some in the audience, because the group was applauded several times during their sets. It would have been a serious stretch of imagination to say that what Ms. McKay and her band did that night could be described as in the "jazz tradition." Why? Because they didn't swing enough. According to the maestro Duke Ellington, "It don't mean a thing, if it aint got that swing."

The next night, Thursday, December 6, 2018, New York City-born and based singer Catherine Russell and her trio, a guitarist, bassist and a drummer, graced the bandstand. Her career spans decades and includes work as a background vocalist for acts such as David Bowie, Paul Simon and Steely Dan. She embarked on a solo career in 2007. Russell, a Grammy winner, is also an actress. She is the daughter of Luis Russell, who was the long-time musical director for Louis Armstrong. Her mother, Carline Russell, was a musician who was a part of the pioneering all-female orchestra, The International Sweethearts of Rhythms. Her two tight, crowd pleasing sets, consisted mostly of pre-1945 music, and included such tunes as "Harlem On My Mind," "Swing Brother Swing," "Darktown Strutter's Ball" and "You Got The Right Key Baby But The Wrong Keyhole." Her act was pure show business. She smiled, gave the crowd some nice small talk, introduced the tune, and talked very little. What she did was to sing like an angel, so much, that a couple got up from their seats and danced almost on every tune during both sets. "I see you two dancing, "she said. "That makes me very very happy."

On Friday afternoon, December 7, 2019, Duke Performances held what may have been one of the best events of the "In The Jazz Tradition" Festival. It was called "In The Jazz Tradition Roundtable' featuring Nnenna Freelon, Jazzmeia Horn, Kate McGarry and Catherine Russell. The moderator was North Carolina State University Africana Studies professor Natalie Bullock Brown. The free and open to the public program started shortly after 12 noon at The Pinhook, in down town Durham. The eager-looking, diverse crowd easily filled up the club. The vocalists were seated on the stage with Professor Brown on the far left-hand side of the stage. Her first question was "when did you start singing?"

Most of them stated that they started singing in or were influenced by church music. Jazzmeia Horn said that her grandfather was a minister and that she started singing as a pre-teen in his Dallas, Texas church. Nnenna Freelon mentioned early memories of singing in the church in her home town of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Catherine Russell recalled that when she was a youngster, she listened to a great deal of gospel singers. She also talked about her Harlem childhood and her exciting life growing up around jazz greats who were friends of her parents and how her parents played all kinds of music in their house. Kate McGarry, a Durham, North Carolina resident, who is originally from Massachusetts, said she also grew up listening to church music and to musical selections, mostly Irish-American, that her parents played on the radio and the phonograph player. They all agreed that their childhood experiences with the church and their parents' musical tastes helped them dream and strive to be professional singers.

Nnenna went on to talk about her career, how it hasn't been easy and how she uses her music to help folks heal. She said it was a pleasure and an honor to have "75 minutes" of a person's time to help bring some joy and peace to the listener. Freelon said that if you take away all the labels, the classifications, the names, all the "layers," that we are all the same, and that we all should honor our ancestors. She said her way to honor them was to sing. In the end, she insisted, we all have "a black grand momma, a black momma," inside of us, who we listen to for spiritual guidance. Catherine Russell and Jazzmeia Horn both shook their heads in agreement when Nnenna spoke about "Black Momma."

"I didn't have a black Momma.But, I had a family that supported me," said Kate McGarry, who grew up in Hyannis, Massachusetts in a musical family that played Celtic and pop music in the home. Ms. McGarry, a Grammy nominee, graduated from The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, with a degree in Jazz and African-American Music. After living and working as a jazz singer in Los Angeles and New York, she recently moved to Durham, North Carolina with her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz. She said that she honors her Irish ancestors through her work and that they are the ones that have helped her deal with the demands of show business

Jazzmeia Horn said she totally agreed with what Nnenna said about honoring the ancestors. Ms. Horn talked about her name. "It was given to me by my grandmother, who wanted to be a jazz singer, but she couldn't. Her story is sort of like Nina Simone. Nina wanted to be the first black classical pianist. She didn't make it. My grandmother left Texas, went to New York to be a jazz musician, but, because she was from Texas, she couldn't get a cabaret card, so she went back and became a church musician. She gave me this name for a reason. I feel like I am living through her and fulfilling her dream."

"I didn't really know what jazz was when I was young," Ms. Horn continued. " I was just this little nappy-haired skinny girl with a big mouth who loved to sing. My high school music teacher introduced me to the music. When I heard Sarah Vaughan, I said that's who I want to be like! So, I tried. But, you know what? One day I just said-‘(expletive deleted) it! I am going to be me! I just couldn't fake it. I have been me ever since. I don't hold back anything! I bring it all to you! No pretense! This is how I honor the ancestors!"

Later, that Friday evening (12/7/18), at the Fruit and Produce, Jazzmeia was herself alright. There was a full house in attendance, young and old, a nice mix of colors, and cultures, especially African-American women. They had heard about her. The word was out that she was a must-see-a new Nina Simone, a brand-new Betty "Bebop" Carter? She and her swinging trio didn't disappoint. They swung us into good health. During the second set, she had the crowd scatting with her. She used call and response to make them a part of the show, too. Most of her tunes were standards, except when she did a bouncy, earthy, Latin-tinged treatment of "What's Going On?" Her excellent, soulful voice sounded like a ringing bell, like an alarm, asking a universal question. At one point, she jumped up real high in the air, like she was almost floating in the mid-air, looking like a brown Mary Poppins without an umbrella. She stuck her hand in the air and almost screamed out-"I said I want to know what's going on? What's going on?" Somebody in the audience yelled "Sing little sister! Sing!" To say she made a tremendous seriously-hip highly-cultural impression and that her performance was the highlight of the festival would be a big fat juicy sloppy understatement.

Eight inches of snow fell and paralyzed the traffic in the Triangle North Carolina area, late Saturday night, early Sunday morning, December 8 and 9, 2018. It led to a change in the schedule of "In The Jazz Tradition" vocal series. According to the Duke Performances website, as of Saturday, December 8, 2018, The North Carolina Central University Vocal Jazz Ensemble concert in the afternoon and the Rene Marie evening performance were still set for the The Fruit and Produce. The Kate McGarry concert, Sunday night, December 9, 2018, at The Fruit and Produce was moved to Tuesday night (12/11/18). The North Carolina Central University Vocal Jazz Ensemble's appearance on Sunday afternoon was cancelled. The concert that featured singer Lucinda Williams, with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and The Marvels, Monday night, December 10, 2018, at the Carolina Theater, in down town Durham, North Carolina, was still on.
Unfortunately, this reviewer was not at the Saturday (12/8/18, Sunday (12/9/18), Monday (12/10/18) or Tuesday (12/11/18) events. So, there is not a great deal to report, review, or write about, other than supreme congratulations once again to Duke Performances for keeping the cultural flame alive and well in the land of Trane, Monk, Nina and Max.

More Information: https://dukeperformances.duke.edu

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