Even before Lea DeLaria gained contemporary fanfare through her role as Big Boo on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, she was making the rounds as late night comedy’s first openly queer comic. Even before she went up on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993 and declared, “It’s the nineties and it’s hip to be queer and I’m a biiiig dike!”, she was singing jazz. And proper jazz, not lounge music, she clarifies. Even as an 8 year old, Lea DeLaria was accompanying her dad on gigs by his jazz trio, learning from them, singing for audiences during band breaks.
DeLaria grew up to be a serious jazz musician. Her jazz abilities took center stage at the 50th Anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival in 2004 where she performed as a lead vocalist. She has gone on to perform at the most prestigious music halls of the world, including the Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House. She has six jazz records out, all acclaimed. Now as a publicly recognized butch dyke actress, DeLaria considers her identity as a jazz musician as her most minoritized aspect (Slate). However, it would be a disservice to DeLaria’s music to merely rehearse its proper seriousness. In fact, she asks to be taken seriously because of her slanted approach to an often too orthodox musical form.
Hear her perform ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ from her second studio album, Play it Cool, at the Newport Jazz Festival:
In her most recent record House of David: delaria + bowie = jazz (Ghostlight Records 2015), DeLaria covers 12 classic David Bowie songs. Bowie was still alive at the time of the release, and it was in fact in large part his enthusiastic endorsement of the record that made its release possible. With DeLaria’s label in a financial lull, the record was first announced on Bowie’s own website and its production was crowdfunded there. The album marks an important collaboration of two queer icons, living by and finding resonance in each other’s voices across generations and genres.
As for many, Bowie heralded DeLaria’s awakening as a queer artist. In an interview with ABC Australia, DeLaria reflects on an early encounter with the trailblazer. She remembers seeing him singing in a skirt on Saturday Night Live in 1974. “My head exploded,” she says, “as a Midwest baby queer, who had never seen anything like that. It was a first lesson to me that I should be who I am, and do whatever it is I do, and not care about what other people think.” As a famously outspoken butch lesbian, DeLaria now carries forward Bowie’s legacy.
DeLaria brings the queer spirit of Bowie in all her artistic pursuits, including in the other parts of her musical career. In an interview with SF Classical Voice that proclaims “Lea DeLaria Knows How to Save Jazz,” she says, “I don’t do straight-ahead, it’s not my thing. I swing things that nobody thinks can be swung. I key off that, and the reason I do that, more than anything else, is because jazz is dying.” DeLaria’s work keeps alive not just the memory of Bowie, but invigorates art forms that tend to isolate themselves.
In this “Live in Concert,” DeLaria bricolages jazz with comedy and queer showmanship as she has always done. Even as a singer, she keeps her comedy alive; even as a comedian, she keeps her activism alive. Lea DeLaria does not compartmentalize. Watch her this Friday at 8 at the Spaulding Auditorium.