Ranee Lee’s Dark Divas
sparks Festival de la Voix

Ranee Lee reprises her tribute to a half dozen women jazz singers of colour

By Byron Toben

April 20, 2023

Montreal is loaded with some 90 annual festivals and parades, great and small. They range from music to movies to theatre – you name it. So congrats to Kelly-Ann Kutz, who, ten years ago, entered this crowded field with yet another, the Festival de la Voix. Voice emphasized “spoken word,” now often dubbed “performance art,” frequently with an underlying rhythmic beat, blurring the dividing line between it and song.

The show, backed by a fine seven-man band, has Ms. Lee performing a sampling of songs made famous or associated with the singers selected.

Now in its tenth year, with nine concerts, mostly on the West Island, the Festival is sparked by the live performance of the ebullient Ranee Lee in her tribute to a half dozen women jazz singers of colour in Dark Divas.

The show, backed by a fine seven-man band, has Ms. Lee performing a sampling of songs made famous or associated with the singers selected. I was slated to see this live show back on December 17 at the Centaur Theatre but was blocked by a snowstorm. I wished upon a star that it would be re-mounted in the near future, and that wish came true on a fine spring day, April 15, at the St-James Anglican Church hall at the west end of Hudson.

Ranee LeeMs. Lee did not imitate the style of the other divas but sang them in her way. Those selected, all now deceased, were Josephine Baker (at age 68 in1978), Billie Holiday (44 in 1959), Lena Horne (92 in 2010), Pearl Bailey (72 in 1990), Dinah Washington (39 in 1963), Sarah Vaughan (66 in 1980), Ella Fitzgerald (79 in 1996) and Eartha Kitt (81 in 2008).

Wonderful choices, but like selecting the best athletes, who do you leave out? I might have included Bessie Smith (43 in 1937), Nina Simone (70 in 2003) or Aretha Franklin (76 in 2018), and even Lurlean Hunter (63 in 1983). What an embarrassment of riches! We may not see their like again. Still with us are Cleo Laine at 95, and Sheila Jordan at 94.

Ms. Lee, pushing 80, remains spry and light of foot as becomes one who started as a dancer back in the day. I have attached the song list, adding the composer and lyricist, and the date created below, preceded by three special comments.

The song Fine and Mellow is also famous for being on the “B side” of the historically important record about lynching, Strange Fruit sung by Billie Holiday.

I was sitting front row centre and, during the song What Happened to the Hair on the Head of the Man I Love, Ms. Lee advanced and air kissed my balding pate, so I feel I contributed to the amusement of the audience.

The band consisted of three wind instrumentalists: Ron DiLauro, trumpet; Muhammad Abdul Al-Khabyyr, trombone; and Richard Beaudet, saxophone. Three strings: Taurey Butler, piano; Carlos Jimenez, guitar; and Dave Watts, bass. And, on drums, Jim Doxas. All were up to the task and more.

Here’s the Ranee Lee Dark Divas song list:

Act one

1 – Charleston – James P. Johnson/ Cecil Mack 1923
2 – Honey Suckle Rose – Fats Waller / Andy Kazal 1928
3 – I’m Just Wild About Harry – Eubie Blake / Noble Sissie1921
4 – J’ai deux amours – Vincent Scotto / Geo Koger, Henri Varna 1930
5 – Riffin’ the Scotch – Benny Goodman / Billie Holiday 1933
6 – Fine and Mellow – Billie Holiday 1939
7 – Ill Wind – Harold Arlen / Ed Koehler 1934
8 – The Lady is a Tramp – Rodgers and Hart 1937
9 – It Was Just One of Those Things – Cole Porter 1935
10 – Stormy Weather – Harold Arlen / Ed Koehler 1937
11 – One For My Baby – Harold Arlen / Johnny Mercer 1943
12 – Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye – Ernie Erman / Gus Kahn 1922
13 – He May Be Your Man – Lemuel Fowler 1922
14 – What Happened to the Hair on the Head of the Man I Love – Steve Allen / Sammy Gallop 1953
15 – It Takes Two to Tango – Al Hoffman / Dick Manning 1952
16 – Hello Dolly – Jerry Herman 1964

Act two

17 – Surprise Party – Bob Hilliard / Walter Bishop 1961
18 – What a Difference a Day Makes – Maria Grever / Stanley Adams 1934
19 – Makin’ Whoopie – Walter Donaldson / Gus Kahn 1928
20 – Misty – Errol Garner / Johnny Burke 1954
21 – Perdido – Juan Tizoi, Duke Ellington / Drake, Jan, Lengsfelder 1941,1944
22 – If You Could See Me Now – Tad Dameron / Sheehan 1956
23 – Mack The Knife Kurt Weill / Berthold Brecht 1929, Bobby Darin 1958
23 – A Tisket, A Tasket – Ella Fitzgerald / Al Feldman, Chuck Webb 1938
24 – Medley – Various
25 – Oh Lady Be Good – George Gershwin / Ira Gershwin 1924
26 – Yesterday When I Was Young – Charles Aznavour / Herbert Kretzmer 1964

Montreal-based Justin Time Records has issued 13 albums of Ms. Lee’s work, including Dark Divas and her earlier Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. She is also an educator, an actor, a writer, a recipient of many musical awards and an Order of Canada. I would add her as a “Glammie” (glamorous grandmother) to her ten grandchildren.

Festival de la Voix runs until April 28.


Images: courtesy of Ranee LeeBouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre – WestmountMag.ca

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Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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