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Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs from Gay Harlem

Thursday, December 12, 2019, 8pm
Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center, 129 W 67th St
Tickets $20-65

Music from Harlem’s gay underground, including works by Billy Strayhorn and Porter Grainger, as well as songs popularized by Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, and ‘Ma’ Rainey.

Bryonha Marie, soprano
Lucia Bradford, mezzo-soprano
Joshua Blue, tenor
Justin Austin, baritone
Steven Blier and Joseph Li, piano

Bryonha Marie
Lucia Bradford
Joshua Blue
Justin Austin
Steven Blier

NYFOS premieres a fascinating new program called Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs from Gay Harlem, revealing the musical heart of a subculture within a subculture.

The program features rarities and well-known songs by Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn, and Porter Grainger, as well as songs popularized by Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, and ‘Ma’ Rainey.

NYFOS will also introduce songs by Gladys Bentley, the most popular gay entertainer in 1920s Harlem. She is featured in this New York Times series about prominent people whose deaths were not reported by the newspaper, and there is a large banner with her photo on 125th Street, along with the ones of Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and Claude McKay. Bentley’s songs have not been performed in 90 years, and existed only as records until November 2019, when they were rediscovered by the early blues scholar Elliott Hurwitt (who provided programming assistance for this event).

NYFOS brings back the superb cast of last season’s hit production W.C. Handy and the Birth of the Blues (with the exception of Shereen Pimentel, the NYFOS and Blier protégé who was cast as Maria in Broadway’s upcoming revival of West Side Story): mezzo Lucia Bradford, British-American tenor Joshua Blue, and baritone Justin Austin. Broadway actress and soprano Bryonha Marie joins the cast as well. Steven Blier and Joseph Li share piano duties. The crack band includes winds and brass man Scott Robinson and bass/tuba player Brian Nalepka.

After the W.C. Handy concert, Opera News hailed Blier’s piano playing as “simultaneously clean and dirty”; praised the “utterly endearing” Justin Austin and his “honeyed baritone”; noted the “salty and sultry” Lucia Bradford, who “kept all her numbers fresh and real, allowing her rich, chocolaty voice to discover the hot moments”; and raved about “Joshua Blue, whose saints-raising tenor and complete embodiment of his songs were revelatory.”

Cadenza.nyc noted the “performers’ instant rapport with the audience” which “made for an evening that was stimulating and educational, but moreover, emotionally touching.” The same excitement and Blier’s knowledgeable wit will carry the audience through these stories of Harlem’s gay underground. 

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