Vocalists focus of series’ tribute to jazz

Andrew Schiller

Film discussion series centers on Billie Holiday

Denise Seachrist, associate professor of music, interacts with audience members after the viewing of the documentary Lady Day: The many Faces of Billie Holiday at Cartwright Hall last night. DANIEL OWEN | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Jason Hall

With jazz celebrating its 90th birthday this year, it’s fitting that “Looking at: Jazz, America’s Art Form” is getting people to take a look back.

Last night was the third event in the six-part film discussion series, which is being put on by Re:New Media and hosted by Libraries and Media Services. The theme was “The Jazz Vocalists,” and the focus was on Billie Holiday.

After the documentary Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday, attendees discussed the film with Diane Seachrist, associate professor of music.

Former Kent State history professor Bill Kenney, 66, asked, “Does she (Holiday) come across to young people today?”

Sophomore nursing major Spencer Wenger said he’s heard Christina Aguilera, whom he considers a good singer, has been influenced by Holiday.

The discussion turned to looking at how popular music has changed – and imagining Holiday on “American Idol.”

“Simon Cowell would just kill her,” Seachrist said. “She didn’t even know what key she was singing in. We do sort of have that elitism sometimes.”

“I love that: ‘It’s not the voice so much, but the emotion behind it,'” said Seachrist, referring to what others said about Holiday in the film.

“I’m so glad that Billie Holiday never had formal training, because that would have just changed so much,” she said.

Mark Weber, dean of Libraries and Media Services, said he didn’t know who Holiday was until “Strange Fruit,” her banned song about lynching, became “sort of an unofficial theme song of the early Freedom Rides.”

“I always associate Billie Holiday with the beginning of that movement,” Weber said. “That’s what she means to me.”

One audience member pointed out that a lot of modern jazz singers try to create an “instrumental” sound.

“Her style is so uniquely vocal that I think that’s one of the reasons her voice has stood over time,” he said. “Clearly she had amazing musical sophistication.”

Kenney, a jazz musician, said he didn’t like that the documentary gave so much attention to the various struggles in Holiday’s life.

“I get uncomfortable getting too comfortable watching people suffer,” Kenney said. “I wish we had been able to get away from that theme in the movie, but other than that she knocks me out. That was the crucial soul of swing music.”

Wenger said he was pleased to see Kent State having an event about jazz, because it’s a crucial part of American history and music.

“Jazz gets misrepresented a lot of times simply because it’s not the popular music of the day, as it once was,” Wenger said. “It’s still important that we take note of it, because – as we’ve seen plenty of times in music – many of the good artists develop their style and their craft from the roots, and jazz is the roots to a lot of things.

“Rock n’ roll, blues and all those different styles, they all stem off each other because people looked back.”

The next “Looking at Jazz” event will be held at 7 p.m. March 21 in the Main Hall Auditorium of Stark campus, and the Lake High School Jazz Band will perform beforehand at 6:15 p.m.

Contact libraries and information reporter Andrew Schiller at [email protected].