Semenya McCord Brings Billie Holiday to Life

jazz logo In the 1980s vocalist Semenya McCord was well-known to Boston jazz enthusiasts. I wanted to include her in the first year of Highland Jazz concerts, especially because I had no idea how long the series might last. She was very interested and told me she had been working on a program about Billie Holiday. That sounded like a wonderful idea to me and we set a date for April 7, Billie’s 69th birthday.

Semenya McCord

Semenya McCord
photograph by Ruth Williams

Semenya chose the title I Know About the Life, a Tribute to Billie Holiday. Eric Jackson agreed to act as narrator for the evening and to read the script that Semenya had arranged. Many years later I learned that Eric had been quite reluctant to appear on stage and had told Semenya that he preferred to read the narration from behind the curtain.  She convinced him that he was part of the show and had to be seen.

When news of the concert broke, I was bombarded with phone calls and requests for tickets. We had to add a second performance to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. I remember being amazed when I saw the line of people winding around the block, waiting to get into the second show.

It was a magical evening. In her hair Semenya wore a gardenia which was Billie’s signature. The combination of Semenya’s husky voice and Eric’s compelling narration made me forget my surroundings. The vestry hall at the church disappeared and I was back in one of the smokey clubs where Billie often performed.

On the stage with Semenya were Stan Strickland on reeds, Frank Wilkins on piano, Herbie King on drums and Ira Coleman on bass.

Here’s a copy of the program from that night, listing the tunes the group performed.I know about the life1

Where Are They Now?

Semenya moved back home to  returned home to Galesburg, IL to assist her mother in the fall of 2003; she continues to perform, teach jazz voice at Knox College; and is a member of the National Association for Music Education.  She was recognized with an Alumni Achievement Award by Knox College in February, 2006.  That spring she completed her Masters degree in Music at Northern Illinois University.  In 2012 she was appointed Director of Jazz Awards & Scholarships for Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity.

Semenya has been teaching General Music and directing 7th and 8th grade choirs at Lombard Middle School in Galesburg since 2008.  She earned her License to Preach in the AME Church in January 2013 and is striving to merge her jazz experience with her spiritual endeavors through current performances, sermons and workshops.

Her website lists more of her current activities. She visited the Boston area in July 2013 and performed a  reprieve of the Billie Holiday concert, with many of the same musicians as in the original production. (semenyamccord./index.html)? Even  Eric Jackson was there as narrator. I brought a copy of the old program with me and we enjoyed a few moments remembering that glorious concert almost 30 years ago.

Herbie King

Herbie King
Nancy Alimansky watercolor

Herbie King passed away on November 6, 2007. He and Semenya were principals in Hemisphere Associates, a collaboration of New England performing artists. Their organization promoted local jazz events and jazz education by offering programs in the public schools. I remember fondly a concert they performed yearly in tribute to the life and “dream” of Dr. Martin Luther King. It ended with a dazzling drum solo by Herbie.

Both Frank Wilkins and Stan Strickland remain active members of the Boston jazz scene. In the fall of 2013 Stan performed at Highland Jazz with the Lazlo Gardony quartet. The concert featured Stan on vocals as well as numerous reed instruments. This recording of the Lazlo Gardony sextet features Stan on bass clarinet playing “Motherless Child” from another concert in November 2013.

In searching for a video featuring Frank Wilkins I found a wonderful example from a television program called What’s your Jazz?   (sbellotti) Not only can you hear Frank on piano but also vocals featuring Semenya, Dominque Eade and Wanetta Jackson.

Ira Coleman graduated from Berklee in 1985.   ( pince then he has had an impressive career performing with Cab Calloway, Freddie Hubbard, Betty Carter, Branford Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jessye Norman and Sting.  He was the musical director for vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater from 2002 until 2009. In this video he performs a duo with vocalist Dominque Eade in “Tea for Two.” (Rodriguez).


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