Seventy-five years ago, Billie Holiday was the star attraction at one of New York’s first racially integrated jazz clubs, Café Society. From the late ’30s through the late ’40s, Café Society, and its east side companion Café Society Uptown, featured a parade of burgeoning talents who became legends, including Holiday, Lena Horne, Big Joe Turner, and Sarah Vaughan. New York’s Metropolitan Room is somewhat of an heir to Café Society, a crossroads in the city populated by celebrities, jazz fans, and cabaret audiences alike. It’s also the place where Kathy Sledge recently held court with The Brighter Side of Day, her superb tribute to Billie Holiday and the music of the 1940s.
While Audra McDonald and Dee Dee Bridgewater have recently earned plaudits for their respective portrayals of Holiday, Sledge has been performing Brighter Side throughout the U.S. since 2010. Her appearance at the Metropolitan Room marked the show’s New York debut. She did not disappoint. Sledge delivered on the praise she’s received everywhere from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. She transformed the venue’s intimate setting into what she calls the Gardenia Room, named after the flower that Lady Day often wore in performances. Somebody Tell Joe and the Chops Horns, an eight-piece unit that accompanied the singer throughout her two-act show, opened with masterful renditions of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli’s “A Night in Tunisia”. The one-two punch of the band’s playing summoned the spirit of the ’40s, setting the perfect tone for Sledge to serenade a sold-out audience.
Upon her entrance, Sledge’s star quality immediately captivated the crowd. She began her portion of the set with a pair of original compositions steeped in a swinging jazz style. With Musical Director Mike Kwas on piano, “The Brighter Side of Day” was an ode to Billie Holiday that cleverly referenced some of the late singer’s classic songs and established the evening’s decidedly more upbeat tone. “Take Away Two”, which Sledge wrote with Tim Gleeson, exhibited the singer’s fluency in the language of jazz, from both a singing and songwriting perspective. It’s a sizzling number and one of the show’s unequivocal highlights.
Sledge and her band segued seamlessly from “Take Away Two” into Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s “Almost Like Being in Love”. Sledge wrapped her distinctive voice around the well-known standard while Dave Watson’s sax solo was among many occasions where his animated stage presence enhanced an already first-rate cadre of musicians. “This is why we love New York,” Sledge exclaimed after receiving a thunderous ovation. “This has to be one of the most fun productions we’ve ever done in 20 years. We get to sing some of the most beautiful songs ever written. This is our favorite show.” Indeed, Sledge and each of her musicians imbued their performance with a palpable love for the material. She then dedicated “That’s All” to “beautiful New York City”, revealing the more sumptuous tones of her voice. Sledge caressed the notes and savored each syllable, especially on the line “a love time can never destroy”.
Somebody Tell Joe and the Chops Horns then launched into a feverish rendition of the popular Louis Jordan tune “Caldonia” as Sledge exited the stage. “I don’t know about you but this is feelin’ kinda good,” said Watson, who led a call-and-response with the audience. They followed up with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts”, which featured sax, trombone, and piano solos plus an explosive drum solo by Philip Lightfoot, who even drank a glass of water while his drumsticks nearly set the kit aflame.
Playing muted trumpet, James Cage brought the room to a hush as the second half of the show commenced. A voice wafted through the air. Sounding slightly weathered but porous with emotion, it was Kathy Sledge channeling Billie Holiday. After singing the first couple of lines of “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)”, the singer returned to the stage, dressed all in white with gardenias fastened to her hair. Her body language simulated the fluid, languorous movements of Holiday in her later years. On “Them There Eyes”, Sledge didn’t copy Holiday’s voice, she embodied it whole. “Sparkle, bubble, gonna get you in a whole lot of trouble”, she sang, capturing every nuance that Holiday brought to the original recording. “This is one of my favorite songs,” said Sledge, speaking as Holiday, while introducing “Good Morning Heartache”. The Chops Horns added accents of flute, sax, and trombone as Sledge painted the scene with her voice, underscoring the ache in heartache. Her transfixing interpretation earned one of the evening’s biggest rounds of applause.
Aside from a few brief exchanges with the band, Sledge didn’t pepper her performance as Holiday with repartee or dialogue. Instead she focused on telling the story in the songs through her stunning characterization of Holiday’s style and, in essence, her soul. Her eyes lit up during “Miss Brown to You”, which yielded the band’s stirring rendition of Louis Jordan’s “Five Guys Named Moe”. Once again, Dave Watson led the Chops with infectious vigor. However, the audience seemed to draw a collective breath as Sledge approached the microphone for “God Bless the Child”. There was a tangible anticipation before Sledge sang that iconic first line — “Them that’s got shall get”. It was the perfect song selection to conclude a truly riveting portion of the show.
Following extended applause for “God Bless the Child”, Sledge removed the gardenias from her hair and reprised the show’s theme song. “We’ll have a good time, come what may, this is the brighter side of day”, she sang. The audience might have come to hear “Billie Holiday” but it was Kathy Sledge who got the standing ovation.
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Photos by William Harper.