As asked in the previous article in this series, what drives an artist in popular music to explore historical performance? With such an immense array of media and information available at the touch of a finger, one has access to virtually the entire extant catalogue of 20th Century recordings, these dominated by popular idioms. Doing homage to one’s predecessors through appropriation is a long-standing tradition. It can span from doing covers or arrangements in your own style (Nirvana doing Leadbelly or The Vaselines), sampling (MC Hammer of Rick James or MIA of The Clash, in the latter case increasing the amount of associative or subliminal data and meta-commentary embedded in the new song), or overt influence in style and attitude over an updated message, instrumentation, and language (Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black), to well-meaning and often technically impressive tribute cover bands, or sometimes unfortunate impersonators, who can sometimes miss how the sociocultural meaning of their subjects change over time. But what of an Ida Blue, which so perfectly plots a course faithful to the material and methods of the original, yet unmistakably emanating from the performers as their own utterances? As learned in an interview with Ida Blue frontwoman, Mara Kaye, the answer might well be serendipity, which might go some length to explaining why they are so rare a gem.
Ms. Kaye began in acting. Not coincidentally, so did Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, which may explain their more presentational departure from the traditional Delta blues. After concentrating on music theater at Boston Conservatory, the Brooklyn-born Kaye returned to New York to pursue her career. Through mutual friends, after she “had bumped around the NYC theatre scene for a bit,” she met began a continuing and fruitful collaboration with guitarist and singer/songwriter Billy Jackson on original material in a vaguely antifolk vein. “He told me that he was shocked that I was involved in theatre at all after he heard me sing. ‘You should just be a singer,’ he said. We’ve worked side by side on all things involving music. He has been a very positive influence from the get-go.” It was he who convinced her to take the stage between sets on a lark to sing some standards at Chashama on a night Madeleine Peyroux, whom Kaye adores, was singing with the Lost and Wandering Blues & Jazz Band and frontman Dan Fitzgerald, with whom Peyroux got her start busking on the streets of Paris. It was Peyroux’s encouragement that provided the final impetus, after great urging from Mr. Jackson, for Kaye to convert to singing full-time. The next day she was busking with Lost and Wandering at Astor Place.
Feeling braver and gravitating to old-timey music, some time later Ms. Kaye joined veteran ragtime pianist Terry Waldo, who himself had studied under the great Eubie Blake, in Detroit Moan at one of Mona’s jazz jams. Kaye started the music of the ‘30s, in songbooks and online, in order to accommodate Mr. Waldo’s specialty as they began gigging together. Kaye intimated, “Terry, being a living legend himself, was another validating force, as Madeleine Peyroux was.” As she gained more experience singing in the old styles, Ms. Kaye saw new avenues for personal expression through them. “Dan [Reitz], Terry and I found common ground in music we were all interested in. After I sat in at Mona’s, Terry approached me and asked, ‘how does a young girl like you know about this kind of music?’ I connected with Dan immediately; I knew that I wanted to continue playing music with him.”