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Jazz artist Ranee Lee inspired by Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson has been “a major part of my world,” Ranee Lee says. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress)

by Kristine Berey

The worlds of musical theatre and jazz will intersect on the Segal Studio stage this month as iconic singer Ranee Lee opens the fifth season of its Power Jazz Series.

“I’m a big movie buff, and I’ve done plays, movies, drama and musicals,” Lee said. “This will be a nice crossover for me.”

Selections will be drawn from two very different albums the versatile singer has recorded: The Musicals: Jazz on Broadway, which earned Lee a Juno Award, and Ranee Lee Lives Upstairs, a reference to the Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill at which the album was recorded live over two days. Lee will be accompanied by Richard Ring (guitar), Chad Linsley (piano), Dave Laing (drums), Dave Mossing (trumpet) and Chet Doxas (saxophone).

In past performances and albums Lee has honoured some of the world’s greatest jazz singers. Through the one-woman show Dark Divas, which she conceived and wrote, and the double album of the same name, listeners are taken on a musical tour through the songs of Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald. “It was wonderful to feel their energy,” Lee recalled.

The singer, whose many accomplishments include having taught at McGill for a quarter of a century, having written and illustrated a lovely children’s book and being a grandmother of 10, is preparing for another major project.

March 3-24, also at The Segal, she will invoke one of the world’s most influential gospel singers, Mahalia Jackson.

“Mahalia is a major part of my world,” Lee said. “My mother was a vocalist in a church choir. I used to hear her sing and she brought home different styles of music she was listening to. This became the music of my environment and of course, Mahalia was part of that. She had a spiritual aspect and depth of character. Very few people sang with that type of command.”

Born in New Orleans to parents in dire circumstances, Mahalia lost her mother when she was 5. Even as a child she loved singing in a choir and it was in a Baptist church that she began the career that would see her record 30 albums and rise to world-wide acclaim.

The “single most powerful black woman in the United States,” as Harry Belafonte referred to her, took time from her international career to create the Mahalia Jackson Scolarship Foundation to help young people further their education. She mentored young musicians, including Aretha Franklin. The most enduring image of Jackson is by the side of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose civil rights work she has always supported. In 1963, she sang before his famous “I have a dream” speech to 250,000 people.

The role will challenge Lee on several levels. “The script is like a telephone book,” Lee said, though she is sure the story will speak for itself. “My challenge is that I am not a gospel singer, I’m a jazz singer. I was raised Roman Catholic, so I didn’t have experience in a gospel choir.”

As she did with Billie Holiday, Lee will bring forth the spirit of the singer through the music, without attempting to imitate. “I have to bring what I know to the character, but if I’m successful as a vocal artist I must focus my attention on the power of the song. The subject matter is very spiritual, the concept of the Creator is there.”

Jackson has famously said that she chose gospel because “when you finish the blues, you still have the blues,” while gospel is “God’s music” and made her feel hopeful. Lee says all music is God’s music. “It comes from the source of the soul.”

Ranee Lee performs at the Segal Studio on October 14 at 8 pm. 514-739-7944.

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