Jeff Bolding explores the twisted roots of American Music

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The music director from NYC discusses Billie Holiday and the African-American origin of our music

This month, Jeff Bolding traveled from his home in New York City to be the musical director for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Bolding served for 20 years as music director for Abyssinian Baptist Church New York City, the first African-American Baptist church in New York State. Three times he has won awards from AUDELO, an organization that honors black theatre and its artists. He is staying in Quechee, VT while helping produce the play that recreates Billie Holiday’s final performance, given in a seedy Philadelphia bar to an audience of eight.  

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What is your role as the music director?

I work with the principle actress and the principle musician, who also has a role as a storyteller in the play. I help ensure that the play is as authentic as possible. We must honor the original script and score while making changes where appropriate. 

What should the audience expect?

The audience should be captivated the moment they walk into the space. The stage becomes a second character, and part of storytelling is place and time. People will be transported from the moment they walk through the door to the point Francesca [Harper], the principal actress, finishes singing.

What was Billie Holiday’s musical legacy?

Billie used her voice as an instrument. She was considered a small brass instrument, such as a tenor trumpet, in the band. During that era, jazz unlike the blues – was all about the big band sound, and singers were not showcased. Billie Holiday created her own band to highlight her voice, which she tells us was a blend of Louis Armstrong and Betsy Smith. Her voice had a brassy quality that was unique. Her music wasn’t always pretty, but her phrasing and songwriting were unique. A lot of later singers, such as Aretha Franklin, took cues from Billie Holiday.

How has African-American music shaped what we listen to today?

African-American music originated during the slave era. It comes from a deeper, darker place and is the music of an oppressed people. Most of the traditional African-American spirituals were sung in minor tones, which emphasized their sorrow and oppression.

That oppression still existed during the blues era. During those days, African Americans created secular and sacred music, but both had a similar sound. A song could be blues or gospel depending on the lyrics but the chord changes were the same.

How did the sound cross from African-American audiences to audiences of mixed race?

African-American music went mainstream when it was appropriated by white America. Non-colored people controlled the radio stations and the record companies. The record industry favored white singers, giving them the better songs while leaving only second-rate songs for black performers. Billie Holiday overcame this by creating her own band and writing her own music. Later she toured with white bands as the only black singer, and she recorded with the all-white Arnie Shaw Band.

How did the music scene change after Billie Holiday’s death?  

Billie Holiday died in 1958, and a lot of things happened after her death. The Civil Rights Movement. The Vietnam War. African-American artists sang the blues and then R&B. Little Richard was instrumental in creating rock and roll. White artists, such as Elvis Presley, appropriated the sound and made it famous. Others “white washed” the music to make it more acceptable for white audiences.

Even today, most white artists sound like black artists and have a lot of influence from R&B. Rap emerged from bebop, which came out of the jazz era. Rap employs the same spoken tunes, spoken rhythms as the others but with modern music. Black music today is still the cry of an oppressed people dealing with police brutality and violence. Female artists cry out against harassment and abuse.

All our music has its roots in a spiritual base. My background is in African-American sacred music – the songs of the black church. The sacred music became secular in the cities and had an urban sound.  But as more black people moved from the rural south to cities, the churches became more urban and so did sacred music. This pattern continues today with artists like Kurt Franklin who takes styles of rap and, because of his spiritualism, add gospel music. The sacred and the secular crossover.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is showing at The Grange Theatre in Pomfret, VT from May 31 - June 3 and at the Main Street Landing in Burlington from June 7 - 10. Tickets may be purchased here


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