North Oakland’s ‘Daughters of the Delta’ concerts set for June 11-12
By Lou Fancher
A bookie might place fairly long odds for singer, songwriter, educator and band leader Michelle Jacques discovering a new voice during the pandemic. Born in New Orleans and since the tender age of 5 an Oakland-based musician, Jacques will soon celebrate her 70th birthday and has established herself as a significant artist in the United States and Europe during her four-decade musical career.
In addition to serving as the artistic director and founder of the New Orleans-themed band CHELLE! and Friends and a cappella ensemble CHELLE’S Juke Joint, she has performed and toured with Manhattan Transfer, Wynton Marsalis, Linda Hopkins, Ladysmith Black Mambaza, Al Green and the late Pete Seeger, among others. Her work as an educator has led hundreds of children to find their voices in classes, programs or concerts at the Oakland School for the Arts, San Francisco Symphony, Bay Area Discovery Museum, Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, Cazadero Performing Arts Family Camp and more.
Even so, two concerts entitled “Daughters of the Delta” that are set for June 11-12 at North Oakland’s Plymouth United Church of Christ, “The Jazz and Justice Church” at 424 Monte Vista Ave., will present Jacques in a performance that she says will shine “new light” in the culmination of a two-year dive into her roots (for concert details or tickets, visit sfiaf.org/2022_chelle_and_friends online).
“I sang for years and years, and when Street Sounds (an a cappella quintet she founded with others) disbanded, I had to delve into my history and who I am. Who is Michelle Jacques? Who are my Creole people? When COVID came, I was tired of singing everybody else’s stuff. I’ve done so much recording in Spanish, and I don’t even speak Spanish. I’ll be 70 this year. My goal is to know who I am and to share my knowledge. I’ll never stop because there’s too much to share.”
Not only will Jacques bring the rich, Creole and Deep Southern culture and traditions of Louisiana and her family — a grandmother born in the 1800s whom she recalls singing to her and her mother, now age 101 and “living with me and right downstairs,” she proudly proclaims — the Delta concert will introduce four remarkable Black women musicians of the past.
Original and newly arranged music honoring Becky Elzy, Alberda Bradford, Lil Hardin and Lizzie Miles will be featured in the anthology performance. Also on the still-in-progress program inspired by spirituals, gospel, jazz and the blues are arrangements of Mahalia Jackson’s “Walk over God’s Heaven,” Ma Rainey with Louis Armstrong’s “See See Rider” and Blue Lou Barker’s “Don’t You Feel My Leg.”
Anyone visiting the Hidden Folklorists series on the Library of Congress website can catch an earful of Elzy and Bradford singing “Adam in the Garden Pinnin’ Leaves,” which is also on the Delta program. The two women had been born into slavery in Louisiana and like many African Americans at that time, learned a vast repertoire of spirituals entirely by word-of-mouth.
“Elzy had no formal training, and every song was passed on from her mother,” says Jacques. “That was the only way Black people could share their knowledge. You couldn’t go to a church — slave owners didn’t like slaves getting together because they thought their songs had hidden messages about escape — so she’d share music secretly with her children and neighbors when they got together to sing.
“Then E.A. McIlhenny (the patriarch of the family who created Tabasco sauce) started recording her, trying to capture her sound. Later, John and Alan Lomax put them in a collection in the Library of Congress.”
Bradford and Elzy recorded more than 100 gospel songs with Mclhenny. Jacques admires their strength and determination and how their voices stir up memories of visiting her grandmother, traveling in an old car into the country and smelling the scent of warm biscuits and sweet soil.
Jacques says Hardin, Louis Armstrong’s wife, was “a prolific pianist” who hailed from Chicago but played with bands all around New Orleans before meeting and marrying Armstrong.
“Her technique was amazing. Women weren’t supposed to play like that — to stick their toes outside of church. She brought the sound of piano and the blues into Old Dixie Land,” Jacques says.
Miles was Creole, and the songs she sang often include lyrics written in the Lousiana Creole language of Kouri-Vini. Jacques says Miles and the Louisiana Creole people clung to their French culture, although Kouri-Vini is a blend of French and other languages. According to Jacques, Miles was “a real hammer, a bombshell singer” in any dialect.
For the concert, Jacques is writing “Louisiana,” a song rooted in lists she makes of the area’s food, culture, joy and sadness.
“I write down my thoughts, lists of things I remember from childhood: the music in the French Quarter; the smell of gumbo and fried chicken; the taste of rice, okra and oh, my, the seafood. Memories of sitting with my mothers, her friends, my aunts and uncles when they played cards and dominoes. My aunt had an ice cream parlor. I remember seeing people come and go and how hot it was. When I got off the train in Oakland at age 5, I told my grandmother, ‘I love the cool of California.’ ”
Translating hot Louisiana jazz into California “cool” with an Oakland sound that Jacques says is “juicy and the essence of street,” the Delta concert has Cava Menzies, a musician she often collaborates with, offering a new work, “Opus.” Jacques says it has the old sound of Southern plantation music and also today’s progressive jazz.
“Cava has an ear for nuances. It’s contemporary, with flare,” she says.
Arranger and composer Brian Dyer’s “Sunday Mornin’ ” is also new, and Jacques, thrilled to “share the wealth,” says, “I could write everything, but why? His ear is different. We have similar ideas, but he’ll hear something in a way I didn’t even grasp. Instead of writing everything, why would I when I have these talented people around me?”
Surrounded by four Black women pillars of American musical history and joined by nine 21st century musicians, Jacques has beat the odds and found a new voice with renewed purpose and a “never-stop” mission to share marvelous music for all to hear.