Petaluma’s Stella Heath brings Billie Holiday Project to the Mystic
“I’ve loved jazz since I was a kid, especially old music from the 1930s,” says actor-singer Stella Heath, “but it was in New York, working with a woman named Marjorie Eliot in Harlem, my love for jazz was totally rekindled. When I moved back home to Sonoma County I started my own jazz band, and then started thinking about combining my music and my theatrical training into some kind of show. I knew immediately that it was Billie Holiday I wanted to create the show around. I really never considered anyone else.”
Dubbed “The Billie Holiday Project,” that show - which Heath will be performing at the Mystic Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 7, is a concert style performance featuring the music of Holiday sung with a live band, and interspersed with vividly crafted historical details of the iconic singer’s remarkable life, struggles, triumphs and lasting legacy.
“Billie Holiday, out of all the other singers of her era, created an image and a persona that has really stood the test of time,” says Heath. “Everybody knows of her, even if they only know a little. She’s one of a kind.” Allowing that many people would recognize Holiday’s distinctive voice, and could probably tell you that she performed in Paris, and sadly died of a drug overdose, Heath says she created “The Billie Holiday Project” to fill in all of the other details. “In the concert,” she says, “I really try to break that image of her as this stereotype, of her being some kind of a victim. She lived a very full life. She was a fully formed person. The drugs and the hard aspects of her life were one facet of who she was and what she went through, but there is a huge array of other factors, and they are just as much who Billie Holiday was.”
Heath, who has been training as a singer since the age of 8, was born in Novato but grew up in Petaluma, where her performing arts education included several years with Cinnabar Theater’s Young Repertory Company. After two years at Petaluma High School, she completed 11th and 12th grade at the acclaimed Interlochen Arts Academy, an intensive fine arts boarding school in northern Michigan. Heath went on to earn a degree in classical acting from Syracuse University, and since then, while based for a few years in New York City, has been performing around the country, primarily as a Shakespearean actor with companies in Florida, St. Louis, California and even Beijing. In 2015, she won acclaim for her portrayal of Imogen in the seldom-staged adventure-romance “Cymbeline,” at San Rafael’s Marin Shakespeare Company.
Since returning to the Bay Area in 2014, Heath has founded the “gypsy jazz” band Bandjango (formerly known as French Oak), through which she has been able to express her lifelong enthusiasm for jazz music. With The Billie Holiday Project, Heath has taken that passion a big step further, indulging in the music of an artist she’s been fascinated with since discovering Holiday in a stack of her mother’s extensive collection of old records.
“A big part of the show is my telling the stories behind Billie’s songs,” Heath says. “I give historical context of how a particular song came about, little things about her relationship to the song and how it fit into her life. There is a lot of really wonderful, fascinating information that I get to share. I don’t ‘play’ Billie, really. I don’t act out scenes or anything. I just tell the stories. And then I sing the songs.”
The Billie Holiday Project band includes some of the best jazz players in the Bay Area, including Petaluma’s own Neil Angelo Fontano on piano. Initially a fan of ragtime (which he started playing when 10 years old), he began studying (at age 12) with the late classical pianist and composer Peter Vincent Marlotti. It was through him that Fontano became aware of George Gershwin and “Rhapsody in Blue” in particular, providing a musical gateway into the world of jazz.
The other members of the band are Marin County drummer Spike Klein, and double bassist and trumpeter Trevor Kinsel.
For the upcoming performance at the Mystic Theatre, which does not have a piano of its own on premises, Heath reached out to local musician John Maher (aka Petaluma Pete) who is arranging to lend “The Billie Holiday Project” one of his own pianos, which Fontano will be playing in the show.
“I really want to thank John for that,” Heath says, adding, “Someone should step up and donate a piano to the Mystic Theatre.”
As for her approach to singing such recognizable tunes, indelibly locked in fans’ minds as inseparable from Holiday’s voice, Heath says she knew from the beginning she did not want to attempt any kind of imitation of that voice.
“I sing in my own voice,” she says, “though I blend in a little of her style and timing and metrical approach to the songs. I stay away from doing an impersonation, because I want to sing the songs for me, too. But it’s been fun to incorporate her inflections, and her phrasing and lot of her different stylistic choices, and to find ways to fit all of that into how I sing.”
With a laugh, she adds, “What’s so wonderful is that I get to bring a bit of Billie Holiday into what I do, and I also get to bring a bit of what I do into the music of Billie Holiday.”