“Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen and I was three.” –Billie Holiday

Review of the Event “Lady’s Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” on Friday, 25 February 2022, at the Theater Drachengasse

by Wolfgang Geissler

Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; 7 April 1915 – 17 July 1959) was an American jazz and swing music singer. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner, Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.

Her performances on 52nd Street influenced Frank Sinatra as a young man. He told Ebony magazine in 1958 about her impact:

“With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”

“Behind me, Billie was on her last song. I picked up the refrain, humming a few bars. Her voice sounded different to me now. Beneath the layers of hurt, beneath the ragged laughter, I heard a willingness to endure. Endure—and make music that wasn’t there before.”

Barack Obama, ‘Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance’. (2007)

The play takes place in South Philadelphia in March 1959. Billie Holiday is performing in a run-down bar during one of her last performances before her death in July 1959. She sings, accompanied by Jimmy Powers on the piano, and tells stories about her life as she becomes increasingly intoxicated and incoherent.

Last night I saw the show in Vienna at Theater Drachengasse, directed by our very own Joanna Godwin-Seidl as part of a series of events organised by our Austro-British Society and was mesmerised. Having been told that HBO had filmed it, I managed to track down a recording. Such a wonderful reminder of a brilliant night! Was Lynne Ann Williams performing, or had Billie come back amongst us? Lynne Ann Williams is such a great actress and singer.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is a play with music by Lanie Robertson, recounting some events in the life of Billie Holiday. The play premiered in 1986 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, and soon played Off-Broadway. The play opened on Broadway in 2014.

It was a kind of return to normality. Joanna Godwin-Seidl introduced the multinational cast humorously:

The star Lynne Ann Williams a Berlin-born American, the pianist Fagner Wesley from Brazil, Romanian Michael Acker on the Bass and the superb drummer Jonatan Sarikoski from Finland! (Scenes from “Whiplash” came to mind.)

Finally, the milling crowd of members was once again treated to delicious canapés and Hochriegl sekt provided as always by our excellent Café Ministerium!

What a night!

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