Series brings together ‘powerhouse’ musicians
Kansas City’s Lisa Henry and Fayetteville’s Claudia Burson have their own mutual admiration society.
“Typically, I’m on a bandstand with all men; it’s just a reality of my life,” says Henry, a jazz vocalist. “The first time I worked with Claudia, it was so refreshing. She has this ability to pick up the most amazing subtleties musically — communication that the guys don’t even understand. It’s going to be a joy to work with her again.”
“She’s a stick of dynamite, she really is,” says Burson, a jazz pianist.
The two met in 1999, during one of the early concerts of the KUAF Summer Jazz Series. Burson was on piano, Jim Greeson on bass and Darren Novotny on drums, remembers Robert Ginsburg, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Jazz Society. “This concert marks Lisa’s reunion with Claudia and a rhythm section rounded out by Ben Harris on guitar, Drew Packard on bass and Steve Wilkes on drums.”
The musicians who haven’t played with Henry are “in for a treat,” Burson says. “She’s really soulful — and quite a powerhouse.”
Henry says she had a relatively typical musical upbringing. She started singing in the Baptist church when she was 6, and in fourth grade, she discovered the albums of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
“I was a chubby black girl, and I saw these big, beautiful black women doing this music that had all these improvisational elements to it,” she remembers. “They were able to be who they wanted to be on stage! I said, ‘That’s what I want: I want to do that music.’”
It was in Kansas City that the 17-year-old Henry met jazz organist Everette DeVan, who was leading a jam session “at a place called the Epicurean Lounge at 75th and Troost.”
“I wasn’t old enough to be there, so my mom had to come with me,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Mom, go ask him if I can sing with him,’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, this is your dream.’
“I was learning jazz all these formative years from fourth grade on, so by the time I got to him, I knew over 200 songs, and I think it kind of blew him away,” Henry says. “I was with him throughout my 20s, we recorded together, we went to Africa together — I’ve toured Africa three times, been to Madagascar, Turkey, Greece, South America.”
Visiting Africa helped cement what Henry already knew — the legacy of jazz.
“Even before I realized the importance of the music to America and the world, I knew it told the story of my people, the African American story told through music,” she muses.
But Henry doesn’t think jazz is an artform exclusive to African Americans.
“I think when you live in a world that puts various constrictions on you, once you understand that jazz is about taking those constrictions off, then you get it,” she says. “It’s as much an expression of ‘be who you are’ as anything.”