Tyshawn Sorey's "Josephine Baker: A Portrait" closes Ojai at Berkeley Saturday at Zellerbach Playhouse
Tyshawn Sorey’s “Josephine Baker: A Portrait” closes Ojai at Berkeley Saturday at Zellerbach Playhouse
Tyshawn Sorey’s “Josephine Baker: A Portrait” closes Ojai at Berkeley Saturday at Zellerbach Playhouse

Tyshawn Sorey grew up hearing about Josephine Baker as a matriarch of the civil-rights movement who knocked down racial barriers around the world. It wasn’t until recently, however, when the drummer, pianist and composer started to collaborate with poet Claudia Rankine and soprano Julia Bullock, that he came to appreciate her vocal prowess. Cal Performances presents his new work Josephine Baker: A Portrait 8 p.m. Saturday at Zellerbach Playhouse as the closing event of Ojai at Berkeley.

Programmed by artistic director Peter Sellars to celebrate an array of heroines, the festival opens tonight at Zellerbach Playhouse with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio “La Passion de Simone” inspired by radical 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil. The new restaging by Sellars features International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the vocal group Roomful of Teeth, and Julia Bullock singing the part of Weill, a role originally created for her former teacher, the transcendent Dawn Upshaw.

Julia Bullock performs Thursday in Kaija Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone” and Saturday in Tyshawn Sorey's "Josephine Baker: A Portrait." Photo by Brent Arnold.
Julia Bullock performs Thursday in Kaija Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone” and Saturday in Tyshawn Sorey’s “Josephine Baker: A Portrait.” Photo by Brent Arnold.
Julia Bullock performs Thursday in Kaija Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone” and Saturday in Tyshawn Sorey’s “Josephine Baker: A Portrait.” Photo by Brent Arnold.

Friday’s program presents the young Egyptian vocalist, songwriter, and activist Dina El Wedidi with her band performing a song cycle exploring the heady ambitions and thwarted aspirations of the Egyptian democracy movement. Fresh off of an apprenticeship with Gilberto Gil, she returns to Berkeley after a memorable performance last season with the Nile Project, but this time she’s leading her own band with three elder women initiated into the female-centric zār trance music tradition. Josephine Baker’s legacy is clearly in good company.

Commissioned by ICE, Sorey immersed himself in Baker’s music and started to connect the emotional currents in her voice with her groundbreaking position as an African-American celebrity in 1920s France. “I always knew her more as a dancer and a person very important for the civil rights movements than for her singing,” says Sorey, who last performed in the Bay Area with pianist Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret.

Tyshawn Sorey. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Tyshawn Sorey. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

“What I wanted to bring out is how emotionally potent her work is. You can hear it all in her voice, the pain and hope and struggle. When I first heard the arrangements on the original recordings they sound nice, but they didn’t match what she was trying to express. I wanted to create a set of original music that mirrored that.”

The centerpiece of the production is a revelatory version of Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon’s standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Recorded thousands of times since it was published in 1926, by everyone from Baker and Bing Crosby to Paul McCartney and Ricki Lee Jones, the song is almost always truncated, starting with the line “Pack up all my cares and woe.” Sorey and Bullock include the obscure verse, a move they consider important enough in the program.

“I didn’t know there was a verse until I heard Josephine sing it,” Sorey says. “In jazz it’s often done as an instrumental, and the the verse would never be touched. I wanted to pay more attention to that than the actual chorus. I wanted to reverse that relationship, so there was a lot more time spent dealing with the verse.”

Blackbird, blackbird singing the blues all day  

Right outside of my door

Blackbird, blackbird better be on your way

There’s no sunshine in store

All thru the winter you hung around

Now I begin to feel homeward bound

Blackbird, blackbird gotta be on my way

Where there’s sunshine galore

Bluebird, bluebird calling me far away

I’ve been longing for you

Bluebird, bluebird what do I hear you say

Skies are turning to blue

I’m like a flower that’s fading here

Where ev’ry hour is one long tear

Bluebird bluebird this is my lucky day

Now my dreams will come true

The first international African-American celebrity, Baker was loved and recognized throughout Europe, the Americas, North Africa and parts of Asia, too. She wasn’t the first American to find an appreciative audience in Paris that had eluded her back home, but in many ways her meteoric rise in the frenetic 1920s became the archetypal expatriate success story.

A dancer, singer and all around entertainer, a war hero and civil rights crusader, an indefatigable lover of men and women, and a compulsive collector of children — she adopted her first at the age of 47 and ended up with a dozen — Baker has presented an irresistible, but daunting project artists, biographers and filmmakers.

Josephine Baker
Josephine Bakerwould break down the wall between audience and performer, transforming night clubs, theaters, and concert halls into an intimate living room where she was the host

She constantly covered her tracks and changed the details of her life to suit the needs of the moment, erasing marriages, business contracts, and past statements at will. Her political beliefs were impossible to categorize and full of bald contradictions. But time and again over her 50-year career, through the force of her personality and gentle self-mockery she would break down the wall between audience and performer, transforming night clubs, theaters, and concert halls into an intimate living room where she was the host.

Some biographies have used Baker as a text from which to read the complex racial attitudes of post-World War I France (see Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time by Phyllis Rose). My favorite is Josephine: The Hungry Heart by her last adopted child Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase, which pays her the respect of casting her as the center character in her life, while also acknowledging the powerful currents that she swam against. In her son’s telling, she was headstrong, willful, and nobody’s victim, at least not for long. Indeed, throughout her contentious life (she died at the age of 69 in 1975) Baker left a trail of wounded relationships, neglected affairs and financial tangles.

Baker was 19 when she first went to Paris to perform in La Revue Negre, a show assembled in America by Caroline Dudley Reagan to capitalize on French fascination with African-American culture. Accompanied by a jazz band led by pianist Claude Hopkins (that included the great New Orleans soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet) Baker captivated the audience with the “Danse de Sauvage,” an erotically charged duet with African dancer Joe Alex that reportedly scandalized the show’s lighter skinned chorus girls.

In France, where a growing fascination with the peoples in the empire had created a vogue for (what they imagined to be) African and Asian culture, Baker was seen as a child of nature, the very essence of Africa. Of course with its jazz and minstrel elements the show was entirely American, as was Josephine’s act itself. But in America, black was not considered beautiful in the early decades of the century and Baker’s copper brown skin stood out starkly among the “high yellow” chorus girls.

In fact, color was an issue that preceded Baker’s entrance into show business. Born poor and out of wedlock in St. Louis, Baker was the lightest member of her family, a situation that caused tension between her and her mother. She had a difficult childhood, and was abused by white families that took her in as a servant. But from an early age she demonstrated a gift for physical comedy. By her early teens she was working for the great blues singer Clara Smith.

A few years later she was a rising star on the black vaudeville Theater Owners Booking Association circuit, known as the TOBA, or to the performers who toiled on the road as Tough On Black Asses. In 1923 she landed a chorus role in Shuffle Along, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s landmark musical that brought black performers to Broadway (now back on Broadway in George C. Wolfe’s meta-adaptation Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed).

She made such an impression with her comic timing and slapstick that she won a featured role alongside Ethel Waters in Sissle and Blake’s Chocolate Dandies, the floor show of the Plantation Club. Though she had signed a contract for the production, she eagerly jumped ship to try her luck in Paris and her timing couldn’t have been better. She arrived in France at the height of the nation’s fascination with all things dark and exotic.

Her greatest moment was World War II. When the Nazis invaded France, Baker rose to the occasion, freely offering her services to the underground as both a transporter of information and a tireless campaigner for Charles De Gaulle’s resistance. Though much of France collaborated with the Nazis, she became a symbol of free France during the dark years of the occupation, and often performed for American troops after D-Day.

Though Baker’s legend continued to grow after the war, she left a trail of unpaid bills, media kerfuffles, and broken relationships, along with occasional triumphs, such as her speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Most troubling was her acquisition of an international cadre children she called her “rainbow tribe,” often without going through official channels. With more than enough material in Baker’s life for a mini-series, Sorey decided to focus on her star-making early years when she had Paris at her feet, “exploring how complicated it must have been for her in France.”

Freight & Salvage presents four artists with new albums on Sunday afternoon, musicians championed by Jim Pugh and his Little Village Foundation. The show includes Oakland-based singer/songwriter Aireene Espiritu, who pays tribute to fellow Filipino-American Sugar Pie DeSanto on Back Where I Belong, and Mumbai-born, former Silicon Valley software engineer Aki Kumar. Now an important blues harmonica player, Kumar combines Chicago blues with Bollywood hits on Aki Goes To Bollywood.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....