With her 1000-watt smile, bluesy come-hither vocals and playfully lascivious stage persona, Lavay Smith isn't likely to be mistaken for any other singer. While she was a leading force in the dance-inducing swing music revival of the 1990s, interpreting West Coast jump blues, Kansas City swing, and Depression-era torch songs, she never trafficked in nostalgia. Most of her peers on the swing bandwagon have long since faded from view, but Smith is still going strong because she continually finds tunes ripe for blues-inflected interpretation, whether exploring the songbooks of Duke Ellington or Patsy Cline. Backed by her potent Red Hot Skillet Lickers, featuring pianist and arranger Chris Siebert, bassist Ron Belcher, drummer Howard Wiley, trombonist Danny Armstrong and saxophone great Jules Broussard, Smith extends the celebration of Black History Month for another week with a four-night run at the SFJAZZ Center's Joe Henderson Lab, where she'll explore material associated with blues great Bessie Smith, jazz legend Billie Holiday, R&B queen Etta James, and the inimitable jazz diva Sarah Vaughan on successive nights.
"It's not so much a tribute," Smith says from her Mission District apartment. "I'm not coming out to imitate these legendary artists. These are the singers who taught me the songs I love. They inspired me to learn all these songs, and they taught me to find my own voice. Doing the research for these shows has been wonderful. I've been on lockdown just listening to albums for weeks and I don't go out anymore. It's like getting to dive into another world, like going to school and studying with the masters."
The Music of Bessie Smith, 7 & 8:30pm, Thursday, March 6, 2104
"I always tell the story about how I was this really rebellious teen, and I was drawn to musicians like Joan Jett. I liked rabble-rousers, and when I first heard Bessie Smith I thought here's the ultimate rebel. I was just knocked out. She was this great feminist. When I put her music on she still sounds fresh as this morning. She never sounds corny. She creates another time and place, but these themes haven't changed. The rivalry between men and woman -- we're still singing and crying about it today. For years I listened to nothing but Bessie Smith, and she was my main influence. Jules has been so excited because I'm going to pull out "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," which he likes to say captured the Great Depression as it was happening."
The Music of Billie Holiday, 7 & 8:30pm, Friday, March 7
"No one can deliver a lyric better than Lady Day. When I was a teenager I bought a Billie Holiday record, (In My) Solitude on Decca, and fell in love with it. I was more into early jazz and blues from the 1920s, but I just fell in love with her. And she loved Bessie Smith. I can show the lineage of Bessie to Billie. We'll be doing all the songs she wrote: "Fine and Mellow," "Don't Explain," "God Bless the Child." Billie could take songs that were not really deep -- "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" or "Them There Eyes" -- and make standards out of anything. She made you believe everything she sang. Jules always says about her and Patsy, she knows how to recycle her pain."
The Music of Etta James, 7 & 8:30pm, Saturday, March 8
"Etta is a much different singer than me and I've never really sung her music, so this is going to be a lot of new material. She was able to express things we all feel and just lay it out there. She's so real. She never tried to conform to anything. All the Etta is new to me, but they're so deep in my subconscious because she's one of my favorite singers and I've been listening to her since I was a teen. Chris may play the organ on Etta. I think we'll do some of the songs from her Billie Holiday album [the Grammy-winning 1993 Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday]. Etta is so much out of Billie Holiday."
The Music of Sarah Vaughan, 5:30 & 7pm, Sunday, March 9
"When I'm checking out a singer, I always buy the early stuff first. I fell in love with all those songs she recorded on Columbia, songs that I don't hear people singing: "Can't Get Out of This Mood," "Ooh What Cha Doin' To Me," and "Blues Serenade." I always get drawn back to the Columbia and Musicraft years, the songs when Dizzy and Bird all fell in love with Sarah. I really feel so lucky to be able to celebrate the huge contribution of these African-American women who contributed so much to American and world culture. They have so much to teach us."
Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers play SFJazz March 6-9, 2014. For tickets and information, visit sfjazz.org.