In conjunction with an exhibit on the life and music of Billy Strayhorn at the San Francisco Main Library, in May of 2009, there was a concert held one Saturday afternoon. The performance featured The Junius Courtney Big Band and singer Denise Perrier. They alternated between music and short stage vignettes that dramatized various milestones in Billy’s life, like his first meeting with Duke Ellington, for example.
I arrived early so that I could check out the exhibit on the 4th floor. By the time I went downstairs to the Koret Auditorium, the lobby bustled with happy patrons awaiting the house doors to open and a good show to follow soon after. I managed to get a seat about four or five rows back on the aisle, stage left. Quite a few young folks attended, with pens and pads in hand. A school assignment, I thought. Cool.
Billy deserves the attention. In life, he had a very complicated relationship with Ellington where his artistic abilities flourished, but only within the shadow of his grandiloquent friend, writing partner, and employer. This arrangement allowed him to live semi-openly during the violently homophobic and racist America of the 1940s and 50s, but it also meant that he did not always receive the credit he was due. Only relatively recently has his contribution to the Ellington Orchestra oeuvre been fully assessed and appreciated. David Hajdu’s seminal biography, Lush Life, had much to do with bringing Billy’s life out of the shadows. Jazz artists, who have always appreciated Billy’s genius, have been recording his music with increased regularity, starting with Joe Henderson, who cut an award winning tribute album of Strayhorn music in 1992.
So the event had a good turn out, made up of old soldiers who knew the music, young folks learning the music, and undoubtedly fans of the band and Ms. Perrier. We all sat back in our seats ready for a chill afternoon of good music and storytelling.
And then, she arrived.
Slightly disheveled, medium height and build, not particularly dressed in a way that could be described as flashy, this little black diva nonetheless stole the show. And make no mistake, he was every ounce a diva. First off, he arrived 30 minutes late. That’s late for mere mortals, but for divas it’s just about right.
Secondly and most importantly, girlfriend ARRIVED. No point coming in late if no one notices, and Miss Thing made sure EVERYONE noticed. She huffed and puffed. She turned this way and that. And she was equipped with props — two large Nordstrom shopping bags filled with vinyl LPs, books, and other assorted miscellany — which made just the right amount of ambient noise as she twitched and switched.
Many eyes darted in Missy’s direction as she carried on, mine included. But in the third sign that this was a true diva we had in our midst, she did not notice and did not care. She had ARRIVED. Everyone else, including the performers on stage, be damned. She would not be shushed.
Her arrival now securely proclaimed, she began in earnest her search for the perfect spot where she could hold court and watch the other performance. She did not deign to look my way — after all I was on stage left. Her eyes scanned the center section only. Since there were no aisle seats left, this meant having to push through a couple of people to get to her desired spot. Drama ensued, of course. She had to chide her subjects to make way. They did so, with befuddlement etched on their faces.
She settled into her seat of choice the way a bird preens itself as it settles into its nest, shaking her head, wiping her face, and daintily wiggling her booty. By this point, most ignored her. This was San Francisco, after all. Characters come with the territory. My eyes glanced at her from time to time, wondering when girlfriend would settle down. I should have known better.
The band performed “Lush Life,” Billy Strayhorn’s signature tune. It possesses complex harmonies and world-weary lyrics about Parisian dive bars and lost love, though he was only a teenager when he composed most of it. Ms. Perrier treated it with delicacy and respect.
But then here comes Miss Thing! Not content with letting the music just wash over her, she had to show her appreciation in a more graphic manner. From one of her Nordstrom bags out came a long, flowing, garishly red feather boa, which Miss Thing delighted in waving over her head as Ms. Perrier and the band played on.
I thought I was going to die.
The musicians did not miss a beat, though a smile crept on a few of their lips, including Ms. Perrier’s. Their professionalism kept the show going, but once Miss Thing unleashed the boa, it would not be contained. To show further appreciation for the performance, which by this point was most assuredly meant for her and her alone, Miss Thing gaped her mouth open and a faint cheer, “Yay! Yay!” gently tumbled out. While us mortals clapped after a band member finished a few bars soloing, Miss Thing waved her feather boa, her faint “yays” filling gaps between hand claps.
I thought I was going to die.
My bemusement threatened to explode into hearty, uncontrollable guffaws. I was never good at disguising laughs as coughs, though that didn’t stop me from trying to mask the haw-haws that broke through my weak defenses as throat clearing. Since she was in my line of sight, it was hard not to look at her. I kept hoping that she would just stop it already, but she wouldn’t. After each solo, after each song concluded, up went the feather boa.
But part of me wanted to laugh not at him, but with him, as if we were both in on a secret. For I recognized who he was and understood him from days of old. This was no mere fly-by-night diva we had before us. This was a full-on Grand Dame, with emphasis on Grand. Such grandness isn’t common these days, but there was a time. In the late 80s and early 90s, black gay men of all castes and hues lived large in the cultural landscape. Many came out and hit the scene all at once, as if through some coordinated effort, and the hipper spheres of popular culture snapped and vogued along. The film “Paris is Burning” torched screens across the country. Ru Paul worked the runway for the first time. Publishers got into the act, printing several anthologies filled with black gay writers and poets; some were spearheaded by such now-departed divas as Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam. Even I ended up in an anthology. James Earl Hardy’s B-Boy Blues series started around this time, too. And of course Marlon Riggs brought down the house with “Tongues Untied.” In those days, you couldn’t go two blocks, even in the Castro, without tripping over black divas. We read, we sang, we danced, we owned everywhere. And we were grand.
Sometimes, admittedly, a bit too grand. I remember going to someone else’s reading at A Different Light, dressed to the nines in my cowboy boots, tight black pants, red shirt, leather vest, and wide-brimmed fedora. Without trying, I made a scene walking late into the reading. Folks definitely noticed me, without my having made a pronounced entrance. I felt a little self-conscious about it, since it wasn’t my event. I made a note to myself, tone it down unless you’re reading.
So while a part of me wanted this fool to take it down a notch, so that we could enjoy the show, another part of me was saying “you go, girl!”, because she was carrying on the tradition of grandness. I can think of a few friends from back in the day who would have thought the same thing, and we would have had a ball talking about her for days. Still, I’m sure some might think that her theatrics were just self-serving and silly. After all, how “grand” can one possibly be at a small, free community show in a public library? One might think that, but one would be wise not to say such things around a grand high diva like Miss Red Feather Boa. If one did, I’m sure she would turn, snap with fingers high in the air and proudly declare, “I am grand! It’s the venues that are small.”
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.
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