Cassandra Wilson As Billie Holiday Will Leave You Breathless23rd November 2015
Is the pop-music business truly gay-friendly?
Does it support, or viciously distort, perceptions of clearly gay pop? Both, actually. For every Bowie, Boy George and Marc Almond, there are others encouraged to view public disclosure as career suicide. It’s not surprising. If undeniably high-profile, pop’s also a hugely juvenile art-form, subsisting on one novelty sugar-rush after another. At best, it’s trashy, and, at worst, wholly undignified, a screeching, ridiculous hag reminiscent of Bette Davis’s classic, cinematic nightmare Baby Jane.
Ah, but there are far more dignified arenas for expressions of gay, artistic presence, jazz music for one.
Elegantly bypassing pop’s embarrassingly public temper tantrams, jazz, more subtly, encodes the intuitive leaps of gay logic in seductively complex rhythm sections. Put simply, that just means jazz – unlike pop – mimics the mercurial flow of queer creativity
It’s not surprising. Historically, jazz swarms with majorly influential outsider figures, all injecting a distinctly queer, unpredictable sensibility into the music itself. There’s Billy Tipton, the acclaimed, secretly female bandleader who lived her life as a man, complete with bound breasts and a padded crotch. More famous still, there’s Josephine Baker, the infamously banana-skirted toast of 1920s Paris, and finally, effortlessly heading any list of queer artistry, Billie Holiday.
All three women, quite aptly, embraced gay affairs, and Holiday, additionally – as a smack-binging black woman – had triple outsider status. So, in a world increasingly celebrating bland excess, it’s beautifully liberating to have Cassandra Wilson – arguably the finest singer in modern jazz – channel Billie’s brilliance.
Never heard of Ms. Wilson? You will. In brief, her voice is gorgeous, post-coital, smoked honey, a swooning, breathy rapture drowned in the instrumental love-making of her backing musicians. And, quite simply, her artistry soars unreachable heights beyond pop’s brain-dead, battery-farm divas pumping out clueless cover-versions night and day. Rather, her newest album– Coming Forth By Day – reworks key, Holiday songs as sultry tone-poems of loss and redemption.
So cultural expectations, perhaps, ran unrealistically high for her centrepiece appearance last weekend at London’s annual jazz festival. But in the shocking wake of the Paris atrocities, any appearance by Ms.Wilson seemed improbable, due to fraught, security fears.
Only minutes before show-time, a muddled announcement seemingly cancelled the gig, but Ms.Wilson, admirably, refused to be intimidated by philistine fanaticism. And in a stunning gesture of triumphant, queer solidarity, she unleashed the full force of her talent as standard-bearer for Billy’s sublime, queer misfit mystique.
Yes, she was unavoidably late, but heartfelt music’s always been thrillingly life-affirming, and Wilson’s short, if haunting set, spoke moody volumes.
‘Hush now, don’t explain’, she sang, bringing wrenching depths of situational sub-text to one of Holiday’s greatest songs. Weaving a spellbinding, definitive refusal to oppression onstage with just her voice and band, Wilson’s serene dignity was a master-class in queer resistance.
Someday, perhaps, the most diligent pop-divas might distantly approach Wilson’s unruffled panache, but don’t hold your breath waiting. Pure art – like integrity – never settles for second-best. Frankly, for artists, as exalted as Cassandra Wilson, the Simon Cowells of planet earth merely serve as closed prison cells, not express highways to intoxicating art. It’s their loss – and ours.