Located in the former Augie’s Jazz Bar, Smoke Jazz Club constitutes an elegant venue, where under antique chandeliers, a small audience can experience jazz music while savouring American cuisine around velvet and candlelit tables, each guest enjoying a direct view of the narrow square stage located at the back of the room. On Wednesday April 26th, the female vocalist Lezlie Harrison, along with a jazz trio composed by three men, the organ player Ben Paterson, the guitarist Saul Rubin and the drummer Vince Ector, interpreted several pieces from “The Great American Song Book,” providing the cheerful audience with a performance burst with agility, invention and emotion. The concert featured two distinct parts. The trio played continuously for the first twenty minutes, offering the public a subtle, tuneful and energizing blend of solo improvisations playing around three melodic themes: “A Night in Tunisia” by Dizzy Gillepsie (1917-1993), “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If I Ain’t Got that Swing)” by Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and “All Blues” by Miles Davis (1926-1991). After a short intermission, Harrison joined the musicians on stage, with whom she performed “Prelude to a Kiss” by Duke Ellington (1899-1974), “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George (1898-1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) and “What a Wonderful World” by Bob Thiele (1922-1996) and George David Weiss (1921-2010). Her interpretation completely shifted the atmosphere of the concert, which ended on a much more intense, reflexive and meditative note.
As Harrison started singing, the musicians softened the volume of their instrument and slowed the tempo of the melody. The light was progressively fading, the facial expressions of the performers became more serious and the audience more silent. The public directed his entire focus at Lezlie Harrison, whose sensual re-authoring of three jazz standards ascribed a new content to songs celebrating romantic love and optimism. To this regard, her performance showcased Angela Davis’ understanding of blues, namely as a space where Afro-American female singers can “register sexuality as a tangible expression of freedom.” Harrison began by modifying the form, melody and text-setting of “Prelude to a Kiss” to affirm her sexual desire as a woman, which allowed her to insert hints of feminism to “Someone to Watch Over Me” by playing with the melodic flow and contour of the piece. To close the concert, she eventually modified the texture and the dynamics between the parts of “What a Wonderful World,” ultimately suggesting that feminism is not limited to the strive for gender justice but also the struggle against class and social oppression.
Before the musicians began playing the first pitches of “Prelude to a Kiss,” Harrison started to sensuously beat a slow-paced rhythm with her body, before to say loosely in the mike: “Yes, give me the beat.” Carefully watching the movement of Harrison, musicians started to play the introduction of the song one after another, extremely softly and slowly. This ballade features a AABA form, each letter having 8-bar phrases, with which Harrison played to highlight the sexual energy of the piece. Harrison used the construction of “section A, which rhymes the final word of the first three two-bar sub-phrases ("blue," "dew," you") ending with the non-rhyming song title,” to increase the sexual tension of her performance by winking at one of the musicians or the audience with each assertion of “a prelude to a kiss.” Harrison thus subverts a piece celebrating romantic poetry, in a rather sexually-connoted performance. Harrison declared rather than sang several words of the piece, thus further challenging the traditional day-dreamlike quality of the piece in particular and the ballade genre in general. Melodically, Harrison emphasized the long descending chromatic scale of the first A section by physically leaning forward towards the audience. Using her body language while playing with text-setting and the form of the piece, Harrison delivers a performance about female sexual desire. Doing so, Harrison ascribed to the concert a meaning that was “not only about sexuality, but also about empowerment and eventually freedom.”
“What would I do without these guys?” declared Harrison as the trio began playing the first notes of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” before to burst out laughing. The three men seemed surprised for a second, and intentionally or not, sped up the rhythm of the song’s introduction. Contrary to Ella Fitzgerald’s rendering of the piece the audience might had in mind at this point, Harrison’s interpretation featured a quite disjunct melodic flow, singing the notes staccato and leaping in particular on the words “love” and “lamb.” As she was about to pronounce the first chorus phrase “Somebody to watch over me,” Harrison provocatively glanced at the audience, held her breath for a second, before to eventually sing the words off-beat with a nasal timbre. Playing with rhythm, tone colour and melody, Harrison exemplified how “Black female artists […] use musical performance to hint feminist attitudes through fissures of patriarchal discourses.” Singing a piece portraying women as vulnerable creatures deprived of agency and strength without a masculine figure, Harrison uses all the possibilities offered by improvisation to re-author “Somebody to watch over me” in a manner that highlights the creativity of the female vocalist.
After the first chorus, Harrison suddenly walked off the stage while challenging the trio: “So babes, I am not coming back until I am convinced.” For the second time, the players looked slightly confused, and played back to back the same melodic line. After commenting with a playful smile “How imaginative!” Harrison went back on stage and resume singing “I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood” while pretending to hide behind the organ. After this point and until the end of the song, Harrison stood in front of the musicians on the stage, not turning once to make eye contact with them. She directed her body and voice exclusively towards the audience, as if relegating the players to the mere role of musical accompaniment. In a way, Harrison acted as if she was composing the piece as she was performing it, experimenting new ideas along the road. Towards the end of the song, Harrison used her spatial position vis-à-vis the musicians to reinforce the homophonic texture of the piece, that is to stage the performance around her own musical part. Both elements testified to her centrality and significance as a female vocalist accompanied by male players, and thus Harrison quite compellingly subverted a gender-based stereotype piece into an empowering performance – just as the presentation of standards serve jazz musician. To this regard, Harrison’s interpretation of “Somebody to watch over me” can be understood as an answer to the first part of the concert, in which Harrison showed that she had, as a female vocalist, the same improvisation qualities as those exhibited by the male musicians in the first part of the concert. This way, Harrison rendering of this piece is about woman empowerment, freedom and agency, as demonstrated by the vocalist’s ability to inject her original input in a piece supposedly not comprised of an improvisational part.
According to Angela Davis, jazz, blues and soul female singers “openly addressed women’s sexuality and gender role in a way that was specifically African-American.” As to exemplify this statement, before to perform the last piece of the concert, “What a Wonderful World,” Harrison turned to the audience and said: “This song is for all the women of colour, in this room, in this country and throughout the History of this nation.” At this point, the spatial dynamic between Harrison and the trio shifted: she sang standing between the drums, the organ and the bass rather, looking at the players individually through the piece. During the introduction, between the phrases and at the end of the song, Harrison invited each of the musicians to play a solo, during which all of them inserted new melodic material. This way, Harrison transformed a homophonic song into a four-part piece, as to convey musically her reconciliatory, optimistic and equality-driven approach to the lyrics. It seemed as if the performers were playing one for another as much as for the public, as if they had become their own audience. Harrison and the jazz trio’s final piece might indicate that female sexual liberty and feminism can, or even perhaps, should, eventually pursue a higher ideal of dialog and respect, that transcends class, gender and race. And, that playing jazz constitutes a privilege way to achieve this goal.
Ultimately, Harrison’s performance at Smoke Jazz Club echoes Victoria Malawey’s understanding of Aretha Franklin’s covering of Otis Redding’s “Respect:” it constituted a “gendered re-authoring […] that function as a mean of empowerment for those who have been marginalised on gender and racial grounds.” Yet, Harrison’s interpretation brought this analysis one step further, by creating a cohesive and inclusive social space encompassing herself, an Afro-American woman, and male musicians from diverse racial background. Harrison therefore closed the concert on a powerful, optimistic and reconciliatory note. Eventually, Harrison’s performance illustrates Roland Barthes’ analysis of why does an audience take pleasure in music, as he writes: “The power of music is not in the performance of emotion but in the emotion of performance.” Lezlie Harrison’s coverage of classic jazz songs was indeed a genuine invitation to be lost in music and to be overwhelmed by hope.
© Rosalie Calvet, May 2017
 Angela Y. (Angela Yvonne) Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism [Electronic Resource] : Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Pantheon Books, c1998), 8.
 Tish Oney, “Prelude To A Kiss By Duke Ellington,” All About Jazz, accessed April 28, 2017, https://www.allaboutjazz.com/prelude-to-a-kiss-by-duke-ellington-duke-ellington-by-tish-oney.php?pg=2.
 Victoria Malawey, “‘Find out What It Means to Me’: Aretha Franklin’s Gendered Re-Authoring of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect,’” Popular Music 33, no. 2 (2014): 185–207, 197.
 Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism [Electronic Resource], 4.
 Malawey, “‘Find out What It Means to Me,’” 185.
 Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text (New York: Noonday Press, 1988), 8.