Opera and jazz singer brings music of Billie Holiday to Aylesbury

Bucks Free Press: Nina Kristofferson as Billie Holiday Nina Kristofferson as Billie Holiday

OPERA and jazz are not two genres of music you would usually put side by side. But Nina Kristofferson can do both and said fans of one usually like the other. She is bringing the music of Billie Holiday to the stage in Aylesbury- a singer who she grew up listening to.

Nina débuted her self-penned, one-woman show, Billie Holiday Story, in 2011 at the Edinburgh Festival and has been touring with it since.

It features the story and songs of the American jazz singer and songwriter who died in 1959.

Nina said: "I did a lot of research. I did lots of things including reading books, looking on the internet, watching movies about Billie and the clips you can find.

"Because I have kind of grown up with Billie Holiday I have been researching her all my life, really.

"I feel pretty equipped to tell her story."

Billie had a notoriously difficult life. She was raped when she was just 11 and before she turned 14 she was working as a prostitute with her mother at a brothel in Harlem.

She then began singing in clubs and at the age of 18 made her recording debut. Mainstream success came in 1939. By 1947, Holiday was at her commercial peak, having made a quarter of a million dollars in the three previous years. Billie died in 1959, aged 44, from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. She was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying.

Speaking to Nina I could tell she wanted to do Billie's music and story justice. She said: "We want to really impress everyone. We really want to do a great show."

Nina is joined onstage with a band of jazz musicians led by MD/pianist Allan Rogers and featuring Martin Shaw on trumpet, Albert Gaza on tenor sax and clarinet, Phil Donnelly on double bass and Elliott Henshaw on drums.

The show stirs up haunting memories, harrowing stories and glorious comic and uplifting moments from Billie's journey from poverty to stardom. It also features some of Billie’s greatest songs: Strange Fruit, God Bless the Child, Lover Man, Don’t Explain, All of Me and many more. Nina makes sure she gives the show a new lease of life every night.

She said: "I sing differently every night as Billie would do. I never sing the same way twice. The band plays differently.

"It is a gig but we are telling a story through a gig. The audience there are hanging on every word.

"They are dancing on the side and enjoying the music. I feed off the audience and everyone in the band.

"It is pretty intense."

Nina grew up in Birmingham and attended Smethwick High School for Girls and Birmingham School of Speech and Dramatic Art and then Guildford School of Acting which is attached to the University of Surrey (Conservatoire). She studied there for three years and loved it. She sang Billie’s songs at drama school, which the other students loved. The first time she performed her was in America.

Nina said: "Every time I do Billie I get nervous. I want to do an amazing job and for people to love what I do.

"Although you can and some people do an exact copy of Billie I tend to use her characteristics.

"You can sing like Billie but you need the characteristics and to move and breathe like her.

"I want them to feel a really good sense of who she was and everything. There are nerves, always nerves."

Nina is also a trained opera singer, but she emphasises she hasn’t left it behind.

She said: "The opera is very easy for me. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of years of training. It is completely worlds apart.

"But I would hate to leave one for another.

"A lot of people who like opera often like jazz. It is such a strong show. We are getting all kinds of audiences.

"The story is so strong. We have managed somehow to tick lots of boxes- a jazz show and a theatrical piece all in one."

Nina Kristofferson’s Billie Holiday Story is at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre on April 1 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £24 to £39.90 from 0844 8717607 or go to www.atgtickets.com/aylesbury 

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