Local Current Blog

José James channels Billie Holiday at a moving performance in Rochester

Photos by Steven Cohen for MPR

A two-pronged celebration, jazz and hip-hop artist José James’s performance at the Mayo Civic Center Presentation Hall in Rochester on Jan. 17 commemorated both The Current’s tenth anniversary and the centennial of Billie Holiday—born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915. James was introduced by Mark Wheat, who noted the artist’s “own way of approaching jazz” before relating an anecdote about the artist as a three-year-old boy rifling through his mother’s record collection and pulling out Billie Holiday albums to play.

James and his three-piece backing band consisting of upright bass, drums, and piano, proceeded to fill a 90-minute set of Holiday covers such as “Good Morning Heartache,” “Body and Soul,” and “God Bless the Child” in his own distinctive style laden with rhythmic complexity and vocal power particularly resonant in the large performance hall. I actually jumped slightly out of my seat when James’s normally crooning baritone exploded into the line “love will make you drink and gamble” in “Fine and Mellow.”

Around halfway through the show, James took a moment to address the audience. Though he doesn’t normally talk during his performances, he said, he felt it appropriate to acknowledge the fact that his mother was at the show—James grew up in Minneapolis before moving to New York City to pursue an education at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.

Serving as a refreshing take on some age-old jazz classics, James’s set earned not only periodic enthralled whoops from the age-diverse crowd, but also a standing ovation, at which James returned alone to the stage for a haunting encore performance of “Strange Fruit” using only his vocals to create a backing track for himself.












Paul Schmitt is a literature major at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. He’s inspired by bass lines, metafiction, and lengthy mealtime conversation.