Dispatch: On Blues Fest Day Three, Women Rule the Day as the Queen of the Blues Is Celebrated

On Saturday, it was proclaimed to be Dinah Washington Day in Chicago. June 8 would have been her centennial. She had been declared Queen of the Blues in her day, and so It was fitting that the Pritzker Pavilion be the host to a program of incredibly talented women. The descendants of Dinah Washington stood on stage as the proclamation was read. Washington's photo with her two sons looked out from the stage as if she were truly receiving this honor in what was her hometown.

Dinah Washington is one of my favorite singers and I recall my mother recounting how Washington did not compromise on being the star of her shows and her life. She had a spicy life that kept her in the spotlight. She possessed a unique voice, perfect pitch, and sharp phrasing. She started as Ruth Jones and shone as a child prodigy in gospel music. When she turned to secular music, she became Dinah and worked with prominent musicians and arrangers. Her hits included "What a Difference a Day Makes", "This Bitter Earth", and a pairing with the silky baritone of Brook Benton on "Baby, You Got What it Takes." Her passion for the good life and men—she had seven husbands—was heard in her music. She died much too young at 39. and I wonder what more she would have shared with us had she lived longer.

The incomparable Dee Alexander put together the roster of musicians for the tribute and my mind is still blown. Bruce Henry sang the Brook Benton hits with joy and his elegant/cool vibe. Henry is a historian, a teacher, and a silky-voiced baritone who can hit high notes that will make you say "amen". He paired with Washington's niece Kristin Atkins who has the DNA and the voice to sing for Dinah. They did a perfect duet "Baby, You Got What It Takes".

L-R Dee Alexander and Bruce Henry. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

E. Faye Butler took the stage to sing one of Wahington's double entendre hits "Long John Blues" about a dentist with a special touch filling cavities with a big drill. Butler toured the country in a musical play about Washington, Dinah Was, and she has the perfect diction and phrasing to bring us the aura of the diva.

Melody Angel is a name that I had not heard but I will never forget it—ever. Angel is a guitarist who evokes the spirit of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Jimi Hendrix with thunderous guitar playing. The music takes over her body and soul when she sings "Baby I Got Bad News". I kept envisioning that famous film of Tharpe playing from a platform. Angel has a similar stance and the notes flow through her and then out of the guitar. I know she will be heard from in a big way and probably headlining the Millennium stage herself soon.

Melody Angel and Miguel de la Cerna. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

The always marvelous and mega-talented Dee Alexander took to the stage dressed as Dinah would be. She wore a vintage embossed coat with 3/4 sleeves, gloves to the elbow, and two huge cocktail rings over the gloves. Alexander is always a vision but this felt special to me. The homage was complete when she sang a perfect "Relax Max", "This Bitter Earth" and "Evil Gal Blues". Alexander pointed out Washington's sister Clarissa Smith in the audience who accepted a deserved round of applause.

The trio of Miguel de la Cerna (piano), Jeremiah Hunt (bass), and Charles Heath IV (drums) made the sound of the lush arrangements that accompanied Washington's singing. She was known to be an uncompromising perfectionist and would never have tolerated the audience chatter that happens today. She was known to stop the show and ask a talker if they wanted to sing with some blue language thrown in. What a brilliant star and what a woman.

Vanessa Collier. Photo by Kathy D. Hey

If you are a real Chicagoan, a little rain stops nothing. People put on their ponchos and lifted their umbrellas for the next performance. Vanessa Collier is a Texas-born singer, saxohonist, and composer. She hit the stage with a band of phenomenol musicians and set it off with "I Can't Stand the Rain". Collier has a voice that is unique with hints of Amy Winehouse and Teena Marie. Accompanying her on guitar was Laura Chavez, and the lady can jam on that guitar. Chavez's guitar is a synesthetic extension of herself. She is the music and the crowd loved every minute. Collier has a gift for the tenor saxophone, which sets her firmly in the firmament of blues master in my opinion. By the way, the rain stopped.

Laura Chavez. Photo by Kathy D. Hey

One of her original compositions was dedicated to her younger sisters who were in the tender preteen/teen years when she wrote "What Makes You Beautiful". This ballad was inspired by the pressure put on young girls to be perfect—usually in the image of a "star" or "influencer". Collier called out social media as a means of taking away a girl's confidence. It is a beautiful song that I wish all vulnerable young women would take to heart.

Collier's music ranges from bluesy to moody soundscapes that should be played on a night drive. She also composes some foot stompin' blasters that had the people dancing. She sang a Bonnie Raitt hit "Love Me Like a Man" and a New Orleans second line style "If You Ain't Lovin' Then You Ain't Livin". Drummer Byron Gage provided sweet harmonies and bassist Scotty Sutherland kept the groove moving. All of these musicians are top of the line and are heading into the stratosphere.

The headliner for Day Three was Southern Avenue who are signed to Chicago's Alligator Records. That is excellent news if they will be playing around town because you need to see them as well as hear them. They are a group out of Memphis where Stax Records ruled supreme in the '70s and has been reborn I am happy to say. The hallmarks of the group are their harmonies—a la En Vogue—and powerhouse voice of lead singer Tierinii Jackson. Tierinii is joined by her sister Tikyra Jackson on drums and vocals, Ava Jackson on background vocals,tambourine, and violin, Evan Sarver on bass, Jeremy Powell on the organ, and the group's founder Israeli-born Ori Naftaly on guitar.

L-R Ava Jackson and Tierinii Jackson. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Southern Avenue rocked the pavilion for the entire set. Tierinii Jackson is a Memphis tornado in stiletto heels with moves that have to be seen to be believed. These singers are from the Black church through and through. The soulful harmonies and slicing codas are unique to the Blues oeuvre, ending their songs with a cappella notes reverberating in the air.

Their songs are about uplifting people and positivity. Jackson proclaimed their love for the audience and felt that love right back. Yes, this is Blues music but on fire. "You Gotta Sing About Them Bad News Bears" was perhaps more appropriate than they knew in this town. They did a cover of Phil Collins "That's All" that surpassed the original in energy with added soul. "Every Day's a New Day", "We're Gonna Make It" and a knock your socks and shoes off "Dr. Feel Good".

Tierinii Jackson's entire body is an instrument and every note was from the depths of her being. Southern Avenue loves performing and I strongly recommend that you give them a listen and see them live. It is an electric experience that left me pumped up and exhausted just watching Jackson's moves.

An "In Memoriam" slide show was played before Southern Avenue took the stage and Tina Turner was among those who was featured. I could see her smiling down on this group and seeing the fruit of her influence in a new generation. It was fire and I loved every minute.

Tierinii Jackson. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Sunday is the finale of the Chicago Blues Festival #40 and the headliner is the legend himself Buddy Guy. There is another centennial tribute to Blues piano player Otis Spann, and the awesome Cash Box Kings. This is Blues to make you move and I hope that you can make it.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.