Women of Jazz Unite in Palm Springs: The 10th anniversary of the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival takes place this week, on Nov. 11 to Nov. 13, and along the main attractions are Ledisi, Nnenna Freelon, Cyrille Aimee, Lea DeLaria and many others.
It’s a wonderfully eclectic and impressive lineup, showcasing some of the different styles that encompass the jazz world. DeLaria, who is perhaps best known for portraying Big Boo on Orange is the New Black but has spent years on the stage and screen, also has been singing jazz since he was a child.
“I used to sing with my dad who was a jazz pianist, in nightclubs back in the ‘60s,” DeLaria says. “He noticed right away that I was very interested in music and he also saw that I wanted to sing. He taught me how to read music, and he taught me about bebop, swing and all the different styles. He taught me the language, essentially, but the one thing he always said was, ‘Don’t sing like a chick singer.’ He used to say that to me all the time. Sing with gusto, sing with guts. Be musical. I always took that to heart. I always felt like that was, he really gave me the spine that I needed to pursue what I needed to pursue.”
DeLaria released her debut album, Play it Cool, in 2001, and her fifth and most recent, House of David, came out in 2015. That one is a glorious jazz tribute to David Bowie, recorded with the full support of the late, great genius.
“Without David Bowie, this record would have never been made,” DeLaria says. “It’s that simple. I had a GoFundMe, and he tweeted out that everybody should go to there and give me money so that I could make this record. It was fucking crazy and amazing. He was saying that he’d heard me. I was like, ‘When was David Bowie ever in my audience?’ I figured it was the London Jazz Festival. I’m sure he must have seen me. I’ve been televised on that a couple of times, so I think that’s probably what he saw.”
As good as House of David (and particularly DeLaria’s version of “Modern Love”) is, it’s been seven years since its release and fans want a new album.
“It has been a minute, for a couple of reasons,” DeLaria says. “Orange is the New Black was keeping me incredibly busy. The pandemic really got in the way. And then I was cast in a new Broadway show that was a huge hit [POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive]. I had six months where I had to be on Broadway. So we’re scrambling now to get this record out, because we would like to have it out by Valentine’s Day. It’s called Fuck Love. It’s all love-gone-wrong songs. It’s got everything in it from a Betty Hutton song to Dua Lipa. I’ve got a couple of very modern ones and I’ve got some old ones. ‘Goodbye Earl’ – we do a gospel version that’s really nice. The Cure’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ I’ve always wanted to do that one. Dua Lipa – we’re doing ‘We’re Good.’ It’s just Latin jazz. It’s got the syncopated third, we just add the provocative chords.”
Six-time Grammy-nominated jazz artist Nnenna Freelon’s album Time Traveller was released last year, a body of work that she describes as deeply personal.
“It was of course created during COVID,” Freelon says. “My husband [celebrated architect Philip Freelon] passed in 2019 and so I call it a sonic love letter to him. It’s also where I was in my musical spirit, and in my personal spirit at the time. So it’s the record I had to make. There are tunes that we loved, there are tunes that express my worldview from the shores of grief. It’s not a sad record I don’t think, but it points out that music does have the power to allow you to travel through time. Some of these tunes are 30, 40 years old. Others are more recent. I wrote a tune for the project. So it has that transformative and transportive power to take you to a space and time. That’s power we don’t always use.”
Recent years have seen Freelon’s voice evolve in a very natural, organic way, and the singer puts that down to grief in many ways.
“I really didn’t know if I had a voice after my most recent sojourn with grief,” she says. “I was a caregiver for three years prior to his passing, and then I was exhausted. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, in every way. So I didn’t know if I had a voice. But my husband who was my partner all along my journey made me promise that I would keep singing. I promised, but I wasn’t sure if I could keep the promise. What I found emerging from that space is that my voice was different. It was broken in some ways, but in a beautiful way.”
As for this Women’s Jazz Festival, Freelon is excited to bring her most recent album to an adoring crowd of like-minded souls.
“My record Time Traveller earned a Grammy nomination without the benefit of a tour, so I’m super stoked about doing music from that project and some other things,” she says. “I started as a live performer, I was a recording artist after that, so I’ve missed my audience. I’ve missed my people, so I’m really stoked about performing this music in front of people. A Woman’s Jazz Festival – how fabulous is that? To be surrounded by my sisters and expressing in this way. It’s very, very joyous.”
As for DeLaria, she’ll be bringing the hits.
“I’m only doing five songs, so I’m probably going to pick the hits,” she says. “I do ‘Sweeney Todd,’ and a couple of things off the Bowie record, probably Blondie’s ‘Call Me’ off my second one. And I might preview one of the new tunes.”
That all sounds good to us. Because a Women’s Jazz Festival is a jazz festival worth celebrating.
Women of Jazz Unite in Palm Springs: The Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival takes place on Nov. 11 to Nov. 13 at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
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