‘Seismic’ blues singer raises the Yerba Buena Stompers to new heights
Why does Ida sing the blues?
It’s like asking why the moon glows, and the mystery only deepens as Ida Blue shares her story.
“I don’t know,” she muses, “if I found the blues or if it found me.”
An unpretentious but undeniably attractive, dark-haired gal who grew up in Brooklyn’s Mill Basin, Ida constantly suffers comparisons to the late Amy Winehouse, but – besides similar appearance and a shared feeling for classic American black musical genres – the dead rock star and Ida couldn’t be more dissimilar. Frankly, she’s more in tune with singers such as Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox and don’t forget Brooklyn’s own Mae West.
In earlier days, Ida pursued a standard entry into show biz. After playing roles such as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes at Edward R. Murrow High School, she studied musical theater at the Boston Conservatory. After graduation, however, while her classmates sought work on Broadway, Ida took a sudden Southbound turn toward the Delta.
“About six years ago, I’d’ been singing at Freddy’s, in South Park Slope on Fifth Avenue – that was my home base from the beginning. I’d sit on their piano in the front room and have a few drinks – I don’t drink like that anymore – and my friend, Billy Jackson, who’s now my manager, gave me a couple Victoria Spivey records, ‘Detroit Moan’ and ‘Any Kind of Man,’ and I’ve never turned back!”
The Spivey knock-out punch nudged Ida into the worlds of Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Her explorations took her to the outskirts as she discovered the Kansas City Butterball, Lottie Kimbrough, the Arkansas-born guitar goddess Sister Rosetta Tharpe and gospel belter Laura Henton.
One Monday night about three years ago, Ida was sitting in with pianist Terry Waldo at The Rum House, in New York’s Theater District. Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band had a regular Monday night engagement at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side. “Woody’s boys would come over to The Rum House after their gig on Mondays,” Ida recalls.
That’s how she met Allen’s drummer, John Gill. It was a meeting that would change her life. He heard her sing “’Fore Day Creep” by Ida Cox.
“I was really impressed,” Gill recalls. “She had a kind of stage presence that you don’t always see.”
Gill praised her performance via email. “I was so floored by the email John sent me,” Ida says, “that I read it out loud to my mom.”
Before long, she began appearing with Gill’s Yerba Buena Stompers. She awed audiences at America’s Classic Jazz Festival in Washington state and the Steamboat Stomp in New Orleans.
“At the festivals, John introduces me as ‘the boss of the blues,’ and I really love that,” Ida says. This year Ida and the Stompers make their third appearances together at both the Steamboat Stomp (Sept. 23-25) and the San Diego Jazz Fest (Nov. 23-27), and their second at Grugelfest in Toledo (Sept. 9-11).
Ida picks out her own songs, Gill said, “and she euphemistically calls me her musical director, but she’s really her own musical director. Sure, I arrange and prepare horn charts, but she’s really her own musical director.”
Ida may be the boss, but she’s no diva. Gill points out that, unlike some young vocalists, Ida counts off her own tunes.
Tall, long-legged and curvaceous, often adorned with oversized finger rings and gold-encrusted baubles and bracelets, Ida Blue has a sparkling voice. It cuts like a razor, moans like the wind and boldly evokes spirit like a preacher.
Jazz blogger Michael Steinman calls Ida’s performance style “seismic” and compares her voice to a cornet, and she certainly does have an affinity for horns. “She thrives on them,” testifies NYC trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso.
“I dig Ida’s singing, and enjoy working with her very much,” Kellso says. “She always shows up with a great attitude, is prepared and gives 110 percent._Her enthusiastic joy of singing and the way she connects with the audience and musicians, well, it’s infectious.”
Last summer, at Joe’s Pub she fronted a combo featuring a bass clarinet, bass saxophone, tenor sax, drums and guitar. Those reeds were wicked, and so was Ida as she tore up the lyrics on “Black Sheep Blues” and “Little Drops of Water.”
Whether she’s playing small-group dates in the Big Apple or major festivals with the Stompers, Ida’s one constant is the venerable John Gill.
“John Gill has has taught me so much, silently, and he’s taken me aboard as featured artist with the Yerba Buena Stompers so I get to front this eight-piece New Orleans/San Francisco jazz band,” Ida says. “There’s so much history and so much life with this little big band. John Gill and the Stompers have helped shape me into the musician I am today.”
Ida Blue may sound like the 1920s, but she looks like the 21st century, decked out in short dresses or denim jacket and boots. Other jazz singers might dress like flappers with feather boas, but not Ida.
“I like to look good in my own way,” she says. “I just want to be myself.”
Ida’s vocal trademarks are a marvelous melisma and a rich vibrato. She scats occasionally, but what’s most important to her is the song’s story.
When she sings Victoria Spivey’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Ida kicks it off by cooing “aah-aah, ooo-oh” before launching into a particularly theatrical reading of the misanthropic anthem. It culminates in a gritty growl offset by an ironic Helen Kane-like passage. When she introduces Memphis Minnie’s “I’m Not a Bad Gal,” she turns the title onto herself. “That’s true,” she says, straight-faced, before a long pause. “Sometimes.”
“In retrospect I can see that my [conservatory] training helped with storytelling, with how I understand the essence of a song,” Ida says.
Her stage movements are natural as breathing, as she uses her bare arms and beckoning fingers to accentuate the lyrics. She has a firm grasp of rhythm, and she can’t keep from dancing – often wildly, wiggling her knees and fluffing her hair – as the horn players blow the blues.
Ida’s impressed with how the blues has shaped her art. “My voice is now taking a more personal journey. I took singers I admired and listened to what they were doing and by assimilating it, I found my own voice.”
Ida Blue is a true-blue Brooklynite. Her family goes back three generations there.
“Staying true to your roots is very important,” she says. “Family has been a driving force in my life, a source of comfort, love and truth.”
She has fond memories of her grandfather, the late Murray Kaye. “Between dinner and dessert he and I used to sing for the family,” she says. “He had a resonant baritone and liked to sing Mel Tormé and Sarah Vaughn tunes.”
Old photos of Murray Kaye appear in Ida’s “Bodega Blues” video, which also includes a quick cameo by her lovely mother, Debbi.
“Where I’m from in Mill Basin, the houses are separated by a firewall,” Ida says. “They’re all very close, so we have a real sense of neighborhood. I dig that genuine real sense of belonging.”
Ida so loves her urban neighborhood that she had her Zip Code – 11234 – tattooed on her left arm. She so loves Mill Basin’s streetcorners that she coined the term, “Bodega Blues.”
“It’s the real grit,” she says. There’s a “dirty, homegrown” aspect to the neighborhood, but there’s also the comfort of the familiar. “The guy behind the counter knows your name. I’ve been going to the Mill Basin Bagel Cafe since I’m a little kid, so they know what I like to eat and how I take my coffee. They all call me ‘Blue.’”
As in the rest of America, Brooklyn’s demographics are rapidly shifting. “The best part of Brooklyn is its diversity,” Ida says. “I’m grateful to have been raised in a city where people of every shape and color coexist.”
In every big city, diversity is a fact of life.
“I was taught understanding,” Ida says. “My mom always said, ‘Everyone is special, everybody is different.’ Those are important life values, but life is also a struggle, and the blues is about that daily struggle we all have to deal with. As a blues singer, I can let people know they’re not alone. We all share those struggles.”
After college Ida says she grew up a little, got her heart broken and dabbled in alcohol. She worked a series of day-jobs while living at her mother’s house, baby-sitting, waiting tables, unpacking boxes, clerking and counseling kids at summer camp. Those circumstances hipped her to life’s inevitable ups-and-downs, and they continue to inform her musical approach.
“The blues is so much about shit that everybody goes through,” Ida says. “So for me the blues is a way to connect to everyone. I want to make lots of records. I want more people to know about this music and where it came from and why. I’m trying to make really good music, that people like to listen to on their car radio, that they can dance to, that they can [make love] to, you know. I just want to make good music. Where’s all the good music these days, you know?”
Why does Ida sing the blues?
She wants to communicate. She wants to share. She wants to connect.
And – devil be damned! – she stomps in style, with soul and spirit and swagger and swing.
Kansas City pianist Tom Hook agrees. “Ida Blue is the most refreshing and original thing to come along on the trad-jazz circuit in a long time,” he said. “This lady should be a star.”