Josephine Baker was an American original -- a woman, an artist and an activist who transcended the barriers of racial bigotry that dominated the time in which she lived. Even so, aside from her adopted country of France, her name is not celebrated everywhere to the extent that her remarkable accomplishments deserve.
“Josephine Baker: A Life of le Jazz Hot!” at the Egyptian Theatre on Sunday was a welcome step toward an acknowledgment of the African American singer-dancer’s legacy. Created and performed by the Imani Winds and singer Rene Marie, the multimedia work was presented as a three-part overview of Baker’s long career.
The concert began with a high-spirited, scene-setting reading of James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” performed with buoyant high spirits by the Imani woodwind quintet. Next came the first movement of a five-part work, “Portraits of Josephine Baker,” composed by the ensemble’s flutist, Valerie Coleman. The remaining movements, simmering with atmospheric soundscapes touching on various segments of Baker’s life, were interspersed throughout the balance of the program.
Marie, garbed in period costumes, sang a pair of her own songs and three others closely associated with Baker. Her “Autobiography” and “The South Is Mine” suggested a touching linkage -- emotionally and artistically -- between the travails that Marie and Baker experienced in their professional and personal lives. Marie’s rendering of the whimsical “Don’t Touch My Tomatoes,” as well as the brief clips from Baker’s films, underscored the dark ironies facing African American artists in the 1920s as well as today. And Marie’s take on a pair of seductive Baker hits, “Donnez Moi La Main” (Give Me Your Hand) and “Je Voudrais” (I Would Like), were gorgeous illustrations of why the French were so much in love with the American expatriate. (She was awarded the Croix de Guerre, Legion d’Honneur and Rosette of the Resistance for her World War II work with the French resistance.)
The Imani Winds players -- flutist Coleman, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mariam Adam, bassoonist Monica Ellis and French horn player Jeff Scott -- captured every nuance superbly. Playing with jazz-driven swing in the more rhythmic passages, blending into lush wind textures in the more classically oriented sections, they impressively honored the memory of an extraordinary woman.