Honoring the music of Billie Holiday and Lester Young
Jazz singer Billie Holiday was given the nickname “Lady Day” by her friend, saxophonist Lester Young. Young’s nickname was “Prez,” given to him by—you guessed it—Billie Holiday. Their special bond existed both inside and outside the musical realm, and the Knoxville duo of vocalist Kelle Jolly and saxophonist Will Boyd—who have a special bond of their own—will pay tribute to Holiday and Young at Barking Legs Theater on Thursday, Nov. 3.
“My favorite Billie Holiday song that she made famous is ‘He’s Funny That Way,’” said Jolly. “It describes my relationship with my husband. He’s always calm but will follow me with my wild ideas. Just like the lyrics say: ‘He never hollers, he’d live in a tent.’”
Jolly and Boyd met at South Carolina State University before Boyd moved to Knoxville to study with revered jazz educators/performers Jerry Coker and Donald Brown. Jolly, who was living at Chattanooga at the time, and Boyd reconnected and performed frequently together, before getting married at a jazz festival in Japan.
In Knoxville, Jolly and Boyd have worked tirelessly to help cultivate the jazz scene; a multi-instrumentalist, Boyd teaches, leads clinics and is a member of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. Jolly is the host of a TV show and the weekly WUOT radio show “Jazz Jam,” the founder of the annual Women in Jazz Jam Festival, an educator and a ukulele enthusiast, in addition to being a vocalist with a repertoire that includes jazz, folk, gospel and even songs by Dolly Parton.
In an interview with Marcus Carmon, Jolly described an incredible opportunity to fly to New York City to meet Nona Hendryx. After Hendryx asked Jolly, “Who are you as an artist?” Jolly realized she didn’t have an answer, and it was a pivotal moment in her career, when she realized that she needed to focus and define herself.
When asked how she would answer that question today, Jolly described her experience portraying the preacher and songwriter Leola Manning in the play Between a Ballad and a Blues as a member of Knoxville’s Carpetbag Theatre.
“Carpetbag Theatre exposed me to the legacy of African American musicians in East Tennessee,” said Jolly. “Musicians through the decades have served people in the same ways over time, playing parties, cultural celebrations, funerals, etc.”
“I related so much to these stories, and I saw myself in them,” said Jolly. “So during the process of performing on stage, I realized that I too was part of this African American musical heritage.”
For Jolly’s Women in Jazz Jam Festival, every rehearsal started and ended with a circle—which she learned from the Carpetbag Theatre—and she was touched by the numerous stories she heard during these circles from women feeling overlooked or under-appreciated.
“We all have experienced some kind of art-making trauma, that left us not feeling good about ourselves,” said Jolly. “But this experience left women feeling supported and empowered.”
“That was the seed I wanted to plant with the festival: operate in honesty and love, and it will permeate through everything you do,” said Jolly.
“I also realized the economic impact of bringing women together. Mostly we are unaware of the systems we operate in and how left out of the loop women are because everyone treats it like it’s normal,” said Jolly. “So for young ladies, we have to build connections that give young women a network to plug into.”
While Lester Young may not be a household name, he influenced saxophonists such as Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz and perhaps has had an even bigger cultural impact from the slang terms that he coined, including “cool,” “crib” and “homeboy.”
“The most notable thing that I’ve learned from Lester Young is his sense of phrasing and lyricism,” said Boyd. “Prez was famous for his understated style and use of space. He didn’t need to play a lot of fast runs and high notes if they were not necessary.”
At the November 3 performance, with Jolly and Boyd accompanied by guitarist David Bivens, bassist Matt Nelson and drummer Matt Turnure, don’t expect Billie Holiday impersonations. (Google “David Sedaris Billie Holiday Oscar Meyer” if that’s what you want.)
“I’m not trying to copy Billie Holiday,” said Jolly. “But I would like to sing the repertoire she made famous, in my own way.”
“I like to sing like I am feeling those words for the first time even though I’ve been singing ‘All of Me’ for over 20 years,” said Jolly. “Billie Holiday is quoted as saying, ‘If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.’”