2 jazz greats from the past unite for Healdsburg Jazz performance
Pianist Tammy Hall has no idea if jazz legends Nina Simone and Mary Lou Williams ever met. But in her imagination, she sees them together.
She hasn’t seen photos of them side by side or heard recordings of them collaborating. But she envisions them together backstage in Paris, talking about how jazz is rooted in the blues, before they receive medals of honor and play a concert together for the first time.
It’s a vision she’s carried with her for two decades. So when Healdsburg Jazz Festival Artistic Director Marcus Shelby reached out to anoint her as the inaugural performer in the new artist in residence program, Hall knew exactly what she wanted to create.
The result is “Convergence,” a fictitious rendezvous between Simone and Williams, brought to life in both music and story, woven with spoken word monologues (by actress and musician RyanNicole) and a dialogue between Simone (played by pianist Victoria Theodore) and Williams (played by Hall) as they celebrate and debate the origins of jazz. Backed by bassist Ruth Davies and drummer Sylvia Cuenca, they trade songs — “Cancer,” “Rosa Mae,” “Central Park Blues” and “Good Bait” — while taking turns at a backstage piano before sharing the bench for a finale run through the classic “Caravan.” The concert, recorded at Opus Studios in Berkeley, premieres as an online video at 7 p.m. March 31 at www.healdsburgjazz.org.
Like “One Night in Miami,” the Netflix film that follows a chance encounter between icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, James Brown and Sam Cooke, this is essentially “One Night in Paris,” with two female jazz heavyweights meeting for the first time and realizing it’s a moment long overdue.
“I was thinking about how we always bring up Mary Lou Williams when we want to talk about women in jazz, and hardly anyone else,” Hall said. “Also, I was thinking about how Nina Simone is more recognized as a vocalist than she is as a pianist, which is what she is first, and a very accomplished one.”
Hall’s daydream originally included four women, adding Dorothy Donegan and Hazel Scott to the conversation, but due to other Bay Area artist schedules, she’s starting with Simone and Williams for this first “Convergence.”
Having grown up in Dallas, Texas, where she started playing in church at age 7, Hall has collaborated with women throughout her career, including Etta James, Mary Wilson, Holly Near, Linda Tillery, Denise Perrier, Kim Nalley and Laurie Anderson. Yet, at 60, she still sees a double standard in the jazz world, something Simone and Williams experienced in their heyday.
“These women realize they’re on the same side of everything, despite the appearance of there having to be a competition between women on stage. That still goes on — that we’re not supposed to have the camaraderie that men do.”
Hall also can identify with the marginalized position and sexism that Williams and Simone struggled to overcome.
“We’re still kind of invisible,” Hall said. “Stacey Abrams (the Georgia politician and activist) has put us on the map. I mean, Black women are trending right now, but does it ever last? And that’s also up to us. I’m not accepting that I’m trending right now. I’m always every day who I am. It’s kind of ridiculous that every day I have to stand up and say, ‘I’m a viable life and I matter.’ ”
The video premiere lands on the last day of March, a momentous way to close out Women’s History Month. But Hall isn’t content with just one month.
“As with all people’s histories, our history is every day, and so is our present and our future. I think they exist side by side — not just one month, but every day,” she said. “Every day I am who I am, as we all are who we are.”