Billie Holiday is back in town, this time at Zach Theatre

Is this fictional portrayal among the closest Austin brushes with the jazz great?


Rumors persist that Billie Holiday played the Kovac Room at Austin’s Victory Grill.

Zach Theatre brings back the jazz stylings of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”

The photograph shows a woman in a winter coat wrapped by a fur collar. A diminutive fur hat accented with a dark bow sits tilted on her head.

Clearly the star of the social gathering, she is surrounded by other smiling African-American women. It is said to be jazz great Billie Holiday when she appeared in the Kovac Room at the Victory Grill on East 11th Street.

RELATED: Austin’s Victory Grill as it shook from 1945 to 1995

But when? And why is she decked out in fur on an Austin night? More on that mystery later.

Most nights this month, Billie Holiday is back in Austin in a theatrical version. She is the subject of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a tribute show that premiered in 1986 in Atlanta and hit Broadway with Audra McDonald in the title role in 2014.

At Zach Theatre, Holiday is played by Chanel on a supper club stage that stands in for a South Philadelphia concert venue. She intersperses mostly familiar songs with stories about her life, which was marred by racism, legal troubles, bad relationships and poor health exacerbated by drug and alcohol addiction.

The heart of the show, however, is the timeless music.

“Holiday had an intuitive sense of timing and phrasing,” says the show’s music director, Allen Robertson. “Chanel has captured the spirit of that phrasing. We’re not trying to do a museum piece. She doesn’t imitate her voice. Instead, we are exploring the nature of Holiday’s musicality.”

Soul of the music

Robertson, 49, is uniquely placed to help interpret Holiday’s music. For 25 years, he has served as a contract composer, actor, music director and sound designer at Zach. When quizzed on the subject, Robertson quickly estimated that he has worked on 175 productions there.

Early in life, his exposure to Holiday’s recordings from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s was minimal. The star died of cirrhosis in 1959, well before Robertson was born.

“I was exposed, of course, to the American songbook,” he says. “But also probably ‘Strange Fruit’ and other numbers that weren’t love songs. As an interpreter of those songs, she had a different voice, I knew, one that was unique in its tonal quality.”

But without the requisite historical context, Robertson didn’t know that Holiday introduced a style of musical phrasing that was adopted by even bigger stars.

“It’s what we call back phrasing, or singing behind the beat,” he says. “Frank Sinatra was influenced by her. I thought it was the other way around in my youth.”

Working with Chanel, he rediscovered one of the basic tenets of improvisational jazz.

“You try to follow her. You slow down,” Robertson says. “But she doesn’t want that. She wants a steady tempo so that she can express herself fluidly within that continuum.”

“Lady Day” is set in the late 1950s, not long before Holiday’s death, when her voice was slipping away.

“I don’t think her voice was completely gone,” Robertson says. “She never had extreme range or training. Drugs, alcohol and the stress of her life had affected it, too. Musically, however, we are not trying to imitate her voice in decay. We are trying to show the circumstances around the end of her life.”

The emotional wear and tear was evident in Holiday’s sound as early as the mid-1940s, a decade after she made her first record.

“She just didn’t make a lot of money,” Robertson says. “She made recording after recording after recording. Those were buyouts without residuals. So she had to perform. Even after such success, she still had to perform to make money.”

And most of what Holiday sang came from the American songbook, also known as American standards, popular songs of the early 20th century mostly created for Broadway musical theater or Hollywood movies.

“It pulled together the worlds of radio, sheet music and all the different cultures with different sounds in places like New York and New Orleans,” Robertson says. “The best stuff came out of the melting pot — emotional stories and musical heritages. Jazz was the freedom within those boundaries. And everybody could hear it through the radio. It connected us. We all knew the same songs.”

Robertson reserves a lot of respect for Holiday’s musicianship as she interpreted the songbook.

“From the ’30s through the ’50s, she evolved as the music evolved,” he says. “From the most popular sound in the country as part of the Big Band era, then into the ’50s, fading in popularity, trying more and more intricate music. She had a gift for singing those strange jazz intervals, but making them seem so natural. She puts the human heart, vulnerability and blood into it.”

Another factor in the show: the social and cultural context.

“I’ll be curious to see, to watch it in previews, to see how people relate to it,” Robertson says. “The story is incredibly relevant. We still struggle with some of the same issues today.”

Robertson thinks the local appeal of “Lady Day” extends far beyond fans of jazz or musical theater.

“Austin is a music city. It defines itself by that,” he says. “It’s the language that we speak here. We are going to be talking about a lot of things, but this music thing is something we all share.”

Holiday in Austin?

Eventually, Robertson’s chat turns back to Holiday at the Victory Grill, which was part of the Chitlin’ Circuit for black performers and audiences, especially in the segregated South.

He didn’t know any specifics about her appearance, but as it turns out, neither did anyone else we asked.

Virtually all general descriptions of the Kovac Room — added in 1949 by Johnny Holmes behind his hamburger stand, originally opened in 1945 for African-American soldiers right after the end of World War II — mention Holiday.

Even the impeccable Handbook of Texas, an encyclopedia published by the Texas Historical Association, lists Holiday alongside other greats who stopped there, such as James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner and Chuck Berry, along with regulars such as B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown and W.C. Clark.

What about the photographic evidence? Holiday wore furs and hats not unlike those in the black-and-white picture. Did she in Austin?

Or was her appearance just a rumor? Is there a surviving witness, perhaps one of the other women in the photograph or their offspring?

Clay Shorkey, University of Texas professor and president of the Texas Music Museum, says, “I also just heard rumors.”

Harold McMillan, who runs DiverseArts and Kenny Dorham’s Backyard next to the Victory Grill, agrees: “I have heard and read the same thing, but in all my research I’ve never found firm evidence of it, or when this happened.”

Music journalist and author Michael Corcoran, who supplied the picture of the lady in the fur hat, is firm: “She was so addicted to heroin by the time Johnny Holmes built the Kovac Room in the back of the Victory Grill that she was unable to tour. She would fly to London or Chicago or Los Angeles for engagements, but there’s no evidence she played Austin besides this picture, which ain’t her.”

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