Life of Josephine Baker inspires Imani Winds project

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She was the toast of Paris.


Josephine Baker, whose sensual antics took Paris by storm, had nicknames such as "Black Venus," "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess."
Click photo for larger image.

"Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot"

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Where: The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, East Liberty.

Tickets: $20; 412-394-3353 or visit www.proartstickets.org.

Her exotic beauty, exuberant dancing and unabashed sexuality drew audiences to her like moths to a flame.

She never singed their wings, however, for in Paris, Josephine Baker found the love and acceptance that eluded her in the United States.

The life of the St. Louis-born chanteuse/dancer/freedom-fighter/activist, who would have been 100 this year, is the inspiration for this weekend's performance by Imani Winds, the Grammy-nominated wind quintet.

The group will premiere its latest project, "Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot," at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty.

The performance is presented by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and is sponsored by PNC Financial Services Group.

The three-act multimedia tribute includes instrumental music, vocals, dance and film snippets reflecting the various aspects of Baker's life -- from her humble beginnings in St. Louis to her triumphs in Paris as a dancer and singer, her work as a member of the French Resistance, her famous "Rainbow Tribe" of adopted children, the down times and her successful comeback right before her death in 1975.

There also will be a screening of Baker's film "Princesse Tam Tam" at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater followed by a discussion led by Stephanie Batiste, assistant professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and featuring members of Imani Winds. A special student performance for third- through 12-graders will be held at 1 p.m. the following day at the theater. Registration is required. Interested participants should contact the August Wilson Center at 412-258-2700.

Jeff Fasano
Imani Winds -- from left, Mariam Adam, Jeff Scott, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis and Toyin Spellman-Diaz -- will premiere its latest project, "Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot," next weekend.
Click photo for larger image.

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Imani Winds' homage to Baker stemmed from the group's work with New York composer Fred Ho, who had written a piece based on Baker's Rainbow Tribe -- 12 children of different ethnicities adopted by the performer.

"From there he kind of sparked an idea for us to do an entire project based on her life," said Pittsburgh native and Imani Winds bassoonist Monica Ellis.

The creative juices began to flow for quintet members and in-house composers Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott, she said.

Next, they had to find a collaborator to do the choreography and someone who could bring Baker to life vocally.

"If you're going to do a Josephine Baker project, we knew right away it couldn't just be the instrumental," Ellis said. "We needed to have those aspects of her life focused on since they were so prominent."

They enlisted award-winning choreographer Christopher Huggins, who brought in dancer Rachael Ashley.

"She was known for her goofiness and her extremely limber legs and body," Huggins said. "She was able to contort her body into weird positions, and that's what really made her grab the attention of so many people."


Josephine Baker, shown in 1951, adopted 12 children of different ethnicities whom she called her "Rainbow Tribe."
Click photo for larger image.

Huggins said he selected Ashley for the project because she had the requisite beauty and talent.

"Rachel is a great performer, and she has the maturity and ability to put the acting across with the dancing," he said. "She has a very expressive face, a very beautiful face, and all those elements are essential when you're trying to put [across] one of the greatest performers on stage at that time."

Renowned jazz singer and composer Rene Marie handles the signature tunes of Baker's French and American repertoire and also will sing some of her own compositions.

Coleman's movements provide chronological introspection of Baker's life and what was happening around her at various points. Scott took his inspiration from Baker's films, providing a kind of soundtrack, Ellis explained.

"From Val, we get a representation of her life in a more abstract kind of way, and the dancer brings that abstract to reality," Ellis said. "In Jeff's music, we get it in a more tangible way. And Renee's singing makes it a little more approachable.

"I think the differences in their styles make the whole thing come to life."

Born Freda Josephine McDonald, Baker worked cleaning and baby-sitting for well-to-do whites, who would remind her "to be sure not to kiss the baby." As a child, she survived the infamous 1917 race riots in East St. Louis, a booming industrial town known then as the "Pittsburgh of the West."

She had a short-lived marriage at the age of 13 to Willie Wells, a man she met while waiting tables. She kept the name of her second husband, Willie Baker.

In 1919, she began performing comic routines with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers. When those troupes disbanded, Baker tried to become a chorus girl with the Dixie Steppers, who were performing Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's "Shuffle Along."

Deemed too skinny and too dark, Baker learned the show's dance routines while working as a dresser. When a member of the chorus left, she stepped in. Her comic antics were a hit with the audience. But it was her performance in the La Revue N?gre in Paris that changed her life.

Her uninhibited dancing and barely-there costumes excited the audience and made her an overnight sensation.

She became a cause cel?bre in Europe after her amazing performance in the La Folie du Jour at the Folies-B?rgere that included her famous banana skirt dance.

Her return to the United States, however, was a flop. White audiences were not ready to accept a black woman who was talented and sophisticated.

She returned to Europe and served in the French Resistance during World War II and as a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Baker received the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government.

In the 1950s, she began adopting her ethnically diverse tribe of children. Baker, who championed brotherhood throughout her life, spoke at the March on Washington in 1963.

"I think what's very important is her work in civil rights," said Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, director of the Sheldon Art Galleries in St. Louis, where a major exhibition, "Josephine Baker: Image and Icon," runs from April 28 through Aug. 26.

The exhibit includes original works of art, symposiums and showings of Baker's films.

"The fact that she refused to play in the United States in any segregated theaters when she came back in the '50s -- especially if you think about the time when she did that -- I think it's an extremely brave thing to do."

For more information on Josephine Baker; Image and Icon, visit sheldonconcerthall.org/baker.asp.


Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660


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