Women in Jazz Organization: Bessie, Billie, & Nina—Pioneering Women in Jazz

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:5 mins read

Women in Jazz Organization

Bessie, Billie, & Nina—Pioneering Women in Jazz

Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, Scottsdale, AZ
March 26, 2022

Reviewed by Nathaniel Jones

This was the second-to-last performance of the national touring show of Bessie, Billie, & Nina-Pioneering Women in Jazz. Presented in affiliation with the Women in Jazz Organization (WIJO) and featuring an immaculate all-female band and a trio of dynamic vocalists, Bessie, Billie, & Nina not only filled the theater with powerful music, but also delivered a powerful message that still echoes today from these three musical icons. We entered the Virginia G. Piper Theatre at Scottsdale Center to a stage set with instruments silhouetted in purple, pink, and blue as the sounds of jazz and blues wafted over the audience. With the mood set, the crowd settled, the lights lowered, and the band entered the stage and began a journey featuring by the magnificent voices of Charenée Wade (Café Society, Offering), Tahira Clayton (AMP’T), and Vanisha Gould (In Her Words).

Gould is an internationally touring artist who has a recently released album (In Her Words). Having graced many New York stages, she is a vital young voice on the jazz scene. All of this became apparent when she lent her styles to the songs of Bessie Smith. With her captivating voice, Gould took hold of the audience with “Downhearted Blues” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Although her patter was limited, her command of the music brought all that was needed to deliver the message and prepare us for the next performer.

Clayton was the next to grace the stage, bringing us the sounds of Billie Holiday. A magnetic and charismatic vocalist, Clayton has run the gamut from teacher to internationally acclaimed contemporary jazz vocalist. She sent chills through the audience with a tear-evoking “Strange Fruit.” It felt as though she knew she had the power to raise the hairs on the back of the necks of the audience. Her charisma was apparent in the way she talked about Billie as though she were a close friend through the spirit of the music. Emotion built as she explained her connection with her fellow musicians during this second-to-last song she exited the stage, allowing Wade to take the helm.

Wade is an excellent show woman, as was clear from by her résumé. Fearless and remarkable, she rounded out the trio of vocalists bringing us the soul of Nina Simone, using her voice to paint a vivid picture of Simone. Masterful with her paintbrush, Wade poured power and beauty into “Four Women,” bringing life and humanity to the characters depicted in the lyrics.

The band of women backing these amazing vocalists was flawless. With seamless musicianship, they brought power, color, and emotion that matched their vocal counterparts. Gary Kerkezou (drums) is the beautifully dynamic heartbeat of the show. Liany Mateo dynamic bass matched Kerkezou’s rhythm and grabbed our attention with each of her silk-like solos. Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet) is more than fantastic, capturing a forward-leaning audience that awaited her next solo. Jocelyn Gould (guitar) is magnetic, exuding the charisma of the jazz guitar greats that inspire her. Lastly, music director and arranger Carmen Staaf (piano) is awe-inspiring; she’s the fearless leader whose fingers that glide over the keys. It could easily be said that Staaf speaks through her instrument as though she were the fourth vocalist on the stage. All of them are splendid, providing a solid foundation throughout the cabaret.

The three vocalists returned to the stage with an emotional send-off that touched on the powerful moments they all had experienced throughout their tour and on the impact the three women they represented had not only on jazz and on the society. They also including some good-natured anecdotes about their tour. They closed the show with “Feeling Good.” Each voice flowed into the other, showing expert musicianship and harmony.

Bessie, Billie, & Nina—Pioneering Women in Jazz has alas reached the end of its national tour, but Arizonans were fortunate to be able to experience its splendor thanks to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and its diversity of programming.