Black History Month at SIUC ended on a musical note.
Singer Jodi Lynn Merriday performed Tuesday at the Carbondale Civic Center with a trio of musicians as one of the last SIUC-sponsored events for Black History Month. The concert was dedicated to remembering singers Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone. The theme for the university’s events this year was black women in American history.
Opening the show with “Billie’s Blues,” a Billie Holiday song, Merriday set the stage for the performance. In between performances of songs by the different artists, Merriday put them into context by sharing information about the musicians.
Billie Holiday started working very young, Merriday said, and started developing an interest in the blues after working with Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. In 1932, after moving to New York City, Holiday was hired as a “supper club singer,” Merriday said. Then her career took off when she began to work with musicians such as saxophonist Lester Young, who nicknamed Holiday ‘Lady Day’ and would help her become a famed jazz artist, Merriday said.
Holiday’s music known not only for its jazz and blues sounds, but for its social and political impact as well, Merriday said.
“Her first recording, ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939, made a strong political and anti-racist statement that still today is a harrowing account of lynching,” Merriday said. “Lady Day was emotionally incensed, transparent and an amazing vocalist.”
Merriday said Holiday later struggled with a heroin addiction, incarceration, abuse and ill health before her death at age 43.
“But she remains today one of the most unique jazz vocalists of all time,” Merriday said.
The singer went on to perform Holiday’s “God Bless This Child,” and “Strange Fruit,” a song which was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Merriday next sang songs originally performed by Abbey Lincoln, who she said started performing at a young age. In New York, Lincoln met the jazz elite who affected her as a performer, Merriday said.
“They played a very important role in her development as a socio-political artist and activist,” she said.
Merriday performed the Lincoln songs “My Philosophy” and “Throw It Away.”
To close the show, Merriday paid tribute to Nina Simone.
Merriday said Simone was able to play almost anything by ear, and the community Simone was from raised money for her to attend The Juilliard School in New York City. In the 1950s, Simone began to gain popularity in the city, she said.
“Her rich, deep, velvet overtones combined with her mastery of keyboard, soon attracted clubgoers up and down the East Coast,” she said.
Merriday said Simone received early attention for a recording of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” and she also became a passionate figure in the Civil Rights Movement.
Simone’s music, Merriday said, pays homage to the struggles of African Americans.
Merriday performed Simone’s “Four Women” and ended with “Afro Blue” by John Coltrane.
“It has been our pleasure to travel to SIU,” Merriday said. “I strongly encourage everyone really to sustain and edify the tradition of jazz, because it is an amazing tradition.”
The Rev. Joseph Brown, chair of the Black History Month committee and head of the Africana Studies Department, said he was impressed with the quality of the performance. He said Merriday has been working on research of women in hip-hop as well as studying the great performers of jazz.
Tuesday’s performance was one of 13 events held at SIUC in February in celebration of Black History Month. Brown said he was pleased with the number of people who joined in on the events, which ranged from poetry readings to presentations by area authors.
“I think that we had a great diversity and that this was the turnout we were hoping for,” he said.
LaCreanna Young, a graduate student in media management from Rockford, said she was glad she was able to attend Merriday’s performance.
“It was very enjoyable and was a very nice way to end Black History Month,” she said.