There’s a famous film clip of Billie Holiday toward the end of her career singing with tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Holiday’s not doing well: her voice is ravaged, she looks haggard and hollow-eyed, you wonder if she can even finish the show. But at one point, when Young takes off into one of his dreamlike ballad improvisations, Holiday shuts her eyes and smiles, her face suddenly transformed with beatific ecstasy. The care seems to melt away as she gently sways on the ascending beauty of his lines, carried for a precious moment from the hell of the present into music’s sanctuary. It’s more than enjoyment–without that music, one feels, she’d die.

That sense of urgency, the feeling that the soul is perched on the edge of an abyss from which it’s protected only by music, is what gives much blues and jazz expression its immediacy. Even joyful spirits like Dizzy Gillespie and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown succeed largely by making us feel that, to them, there’s no way to experience genuine truth or beauty but through music.

The stereotype is that dedication such as this can be expressed only by total immersion in both the music and what’s somewhat vaguely referred to as “the jazz (or blues) life.” Details of that life are seldom drawn clearly, but they often include long years of dues-paying gigs in dreary gin mills, brushes with the law and narcotics or alcohol abuse, and sometimes a dramatic, tragic demise in a cheap hotel. If the artist is a woman, throw in a dash of domestic violence and exploitation by pimplike managers, boyfriends, and bandleaders. Recent film biographies of Charlie Parker (Bird) and Chet Baker (Let’s Get Lost), along with Dexter Gordon’s epic portrayal of a crumbling musical colossus in Round Midnight, provided the general public with some much-needed education about some of our century’s greatest artists, but they also reinforced the cliches.

As overdrawn as the image may be, though, it’s based on historical truth–about the oppression of jazz and blues musicians in America and the demands these art forms make on their practitioners for total commitment. But aside from the truth of the image, there’s the question whether someone can make a conscious decision to adopt the musical and cultural trappings of trailblazers who played and sang as they did because, in some ways, they had no choice.

Saffire–The Uppity Blues Women are a trio of self-professed “middle-aged” Virginians who’ve recently decided to make a career out of attempting just that. Although they’ve all spent much of their lives somewhat outside the American mainstream for one reason or another–ethnicity, politics, personal style, or physical appearance–none has apparently lived the hard-traveling life of a Bessie Smith or a Billie Holiday. All were enthusiastic part-time musicians with stable middle-class careers before they decided, in the spring of 1988, to take the plunge and hit the road playing the music they’d come to love.

Yet they sing the classic blues of Smith’s era with a deep conviction, add both contemporary standards and their own originals to the mix, and imbue everything with a rare combination of feminist assertiveness and courageous admission of vulnerability and pain. As their recent appearance at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera showed, they’re at their best when they downplay their somewhat self-conscious audacity about being family women in their 40s traveling the blues circuit and dive headlong into their repertoire.

Things at B.L.U.E.S. started slowly, partly because of an uncooperative sound system and partly, it seemed, because the musicians were unwilling to get too adventurous early in the set. Lead singer and guitarist Gaye Adegbalola started the band off with their anthem, “The Middle Aged Blues Boogie.” Although everything fell into place immediately–pianist Ann Rabson’s solid boogie-woogie comping above the percussive, string-bandlike thump of Earlene Lewis’s bass, all supporting Adegbalola’s slyly aggressive vocals–anyone familiar with the tune from the trio’s current Alligator Records LP had already heard just about everything they did. Even Adegbalola’s playfully sung harmonica imitation was transferred intact from the record.

Fortunately, the show loosened up. Adegbalola’s crisp articulation befits a woman who was once an award-winning high school teacher. It’s miles from the various permutations of hip black English we’ve come to expect from blues vocalists, but one of this band’s strong points is their refusal to pose or affect stage mannerisms that aren’t true to their real-life characters. The vocal harmonies occasionally approach a crystalline folk purity, but both Adegbalola and Rabson have deeply expressive alto vibratos that keep things from getting too precious.

The first set really kicked in when Rabson picked up her acoustic guitar and joined Adegbalola in a light-fingered, Piedmont-style duet on “Annie’s Blues,” a marvelously brazen celebration of life, lust, and independence that could serve almost as a second signature tune for the band. “Annie’s Blues” was followed by another guitar duet that transformed Bessie Smith’s “He’s Got Me Going” into a folk-blues romp. This was where Saffire shone most brightly–taking some chances and challenging both the music and the listener with new ideas and approaches.

The Uppity Blues Women seem determined to continue the spirit of early Bonnie Raitt–they often articulate their assertiveness in terms of day-to-day experience, particularly relationships with men. Like Raitt, they draw heavily on the influence of take-no-mess women blues singers like Ida Cox and Sippie Wallace. Bassist Earlene Lewis contributed a ringing “Love Me Like a Man,” originally penned by Wallace according to Lewis but credited as a Raitt adaptation of Chris Smither lyrics on Raitt’s 1973 Give It Up LP; and Adegbalola weighed in with two of Cox’s tunes, “One-Hour Mama” and the anthemic “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.”

To keep earnestness at bay, Adegbalola finished the first set with a rousing “Wang Dang Doodle.” This was kicked off by Rabson’s piano intro, based on Koko Taylor’s well-known version, but it then segued into a propulsive boogie-woogie. Adegbalola took to the floor and danced dervishlike around the club in sharp-edged, angular patterns, bringing the crowd to its feet and dispelling any misgivings one might have had about the ability of an acoustic trio without a drummer to hold a rowdy Saturday night audience.

As the evening wore on, the Uppity Blues Women seemed more willing to take risks; predictably, the music got better. Especially notable were the band’s covers of standards. Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” was delivered in a rollicking up-tempo and featured a sparkling solo by Rabson. She included sly quotations from “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie” as well as her own variations on classic barrelhouse themes, building upon Lewis’s solid basswork to bring a driving rhythmic impetus to the arrangement. “Sloppy Drunk,” probably best known to Chicagoans from the Jimmy Rogers version but dating back over 50 years to Lucille Bogan, came off as lighthearted and lilting. Lewis’s bass line approximated the one-and-three rhythmic pattern of the tuba in a brass jazz band and accentuated the arrangement’s hokey, good-time feel.

Most surprising was Rabson’s own “Hoping It’ll Be All Right,” a moody and gently rolling gospel-blues about vulnerability, mistreatment, and the pain possible in a love affair when the heart gets the better of the head. When such songs are sung by women, they’re often criticized as masochistic or sexist; that Rabson could pull it off with her dignity intact and the band’s message of strength undiluted says much for the sophistication of both the artist and her audience.

It provided a marked contrast to Adegbalola’s full-throttle roar on “Three Time Loser,” a magnificent outlaw blues that adds a woman’s perspective to the usual renegade strut: “They got me up for murder in the first degree / But I know I did a favor for all old women like me . . . / That’s one double-crossin’ monkey who ain’t gonna swing no more / I’m a three-time loser, and the judge says I got to go / I killed my good-lovin’ daddy with a sawed-off .44.”

Saffire bring to the blues a unique and challenging vision: in their hands, it’s neither an arena for spectacular displays of technical virtuosity nor a means of exorcising demons. But it’s not a form of generic good-time entertainment, either. They attempt to free the blues from its socioeconomic and cultural origins, making it a kind of everywoman’s music even as they acknowledge and celebrate its roots.

There may be enough pitfalls and contradictions in that approach to fill a musicological journal, but for this band it seems to work. One hopes they’ll become more musically adventurous as they develop; an encouraging sign at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera was Adegbalola’s brief harmonica solo–full-bodied and declamatory, with the usual references to Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter augmented by an improvisational imagination she’s just beginning to explore. As for any incongruity in the group’s image, what the hell: if former Harvard man Pete Seeger can pass himself off as America’s Number One Heroic Proletarian for nearly half a century, certainly there’s a niche for three middle-aged, middle-class women having a great time bearing a message of strength couched in the language of the blues.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.