Singer, actress, dancer and civil rights activist Lena Horne turns 93 this June 30. She hasn’t performed since the early 1990s and has been out of the public eye for the past 10 years. But she isn’t out of the hearts of singers – or music fans who loved her work.
That was clear Saturday night (April 24) when “Stormy Weather,” a multi-media tribute show about Horne, premiered at Scullers jazz club in Boston. It featured singers Rebecca Parris and Paula West, and pertinent narrative from author James Gavin, whose book, “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne,” was published in hard cover last year and is just out in soft cover. The premiere was also scheduled in tandem with the launch of a new Verve CD, Lena Horne Sings: The MGM Singles Collection.
Boston-based Parris and San Francisco-based West had never performed together before but worked well in this setting, with the superb support of pianist George Mesterhazy and bassist Peter Kontrimas. The two-instrument accompaniment provided the intimacy that this sort of show required. Musical director Mesterhazy, an excellent accompanist and arranger who spent more than a decade with Parris before joining Shirley Horn in the last phase of her career, now works regularly with West.
The evening touched on the full scope of Horne’s musical career with appropriate – and often poignant – material from various phases, with the singers alternating tunes for the most part. “As Long As I Live” (Parris), “Ill Wind” (West), “Honeysuckle Rose” (Parris), “Why Do I Try?” (West), “It’s Alright With Me” (West), “Come Sunday” (Parris ), “A Lady Must Live” (West), “Yesterday When I Was Young” (Parris), and “Stormy Weather” (West). As an encore, Parris and West teamed up on “That Man of Mine.”
There were several mesmerizing moments, and the audience was spellbound by what it heard throughout the evening. Parris and West have that effect. West was particularly powerful on “Why Do I Try?” and “A Lady Must Live.” These tunes really spoke to Horne’s determination.
“Yesterday When I Was Young” was a tune that Horne featured in her two sold-out Carnegie Hall concerts in 1993, telling the crowd: “I think that song belongs to a lot of us.” This night, it belonged to Parris’s poignant interpretation and Mesterhazy, whose extended solo revealed the breadth, depth and passion of his playing.
Gavin shared a bit of insight here and there – particularly the racial challenges that Horne faced – in housing, in travel, and even in multi-racial marriage. The tunes often mirrored what she was going through as she struggled with and against her persona – an elegant black woman who sang songs people adored, but was treated less kindly out of the spotlight.
The night also had humor, particularly with “Bein’ Green,” the Kermit the Frog-associated tune that Horne chose to sing in an appearance as herself on “Sesame Street” in the 1970s. She identified with its hopeful and uplifting message about being different. Parris has been battling health issues over the past decade, which, thankfully have not diminished her voice or spirit. She drew much laughter when she improvised a bit, throwing in the line “or tall – like I used to be” – without missing a beat.
Horne made two brief appearances via recording – one in song, one in archived interview about her life and times.
From Boston, Parris, West, Gavin, Mesterhazy and Kontrimas headed to Maine’s Camden Opera House for a late Sunday afternoon performance and have two nights scheduled at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. There will be a video element in larger venues.
Many attendees at Scullers lingered long after the show Saturday to urge the singers to take it on the road on a more ambitious scale. We’ll watch with interest to see how that develops. Scullers entertainment director Fred Taylor, a longtime Boston jazz impresario, said this was the first show of this scope in the club’s 20-year history. He was thrilled by the full house – and the reactions to the performance. Consider it a Jazz Week highlight in greater Boston.