New Orleans singer/entertainer/actress Sharon Martin talks about Billie Holiday, Crescent City and Greece

"My hopes are that a lot of the profanity and disrespect is taken out of the music. My fear is that the universal language of music never gets lost."

Sharon Martin: The Jewel of NOLA

New Orleans Blues & Jazz singer Sharon Martin is one of the many treasures of Crescent City. She was about 32 years old when decided to jump out there singing with guitarist Carl LeBlanc. Sharon has been singing professionally since late 80s. What makes a voice unique and entertaining is surely exemplified in the ever-changing expression of the singer of songs and the teller of musical tales in New Orleans, that mistress of coal soul is none other than Sharon Martin, a petite frame that carries one of the most powerfully soulful voices around. On April 2012, Martin starred as the late, great Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" in New Orleans.

She's one of the first recipients of the New Orleans Asante Awards in 2008 and is one of New Orleans’ most sought after entertainers. Sharon featured on “Fulton Street Live”, a CD the sales of which assisted many musicians after the disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. She is also a featured singer on an album for Katrina victims entitled “Her Name is New Orleans”. Her rendition of “Four Women” on this release enthuses audiences still. Martin has been serving up exciting music not only to her loyal fans in New Orleans but also around the world, earning her the respect and admiration of her peers and audiences everywhere. Martin has collaborated, worked with and shared the stage with some of the finest musical talents the music world has to offer including Grammy winners, Joe Sample, Ray Parker, Jr., Benny Carter, and Dave Bartholomew. She has worked with New Orleans legends, Wilson “Willie T” Turbinton, Deacon John, Ellis Marsalis, Walter Payton, Herman Ernest, Nicholas Payton and many others. Her versatility as a vocalist and an entertainer has garnered her many spots as an opening act for major artists such as Roy Ayers, Gill Scott Heron, Ronnie Laws, Buddy Guy, and Boz Scaggs.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe and what characterize your music philosophy?

Generally, I like various types of music. I especially enjoy delivering / singing songs that have a message base to them whether it’s jazz, blues, country or Gospel. I like songs that tell a story.

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

The most interesting period in my life I suppose is when I realized that showing my soul in my music is the foundation for my delivery of a songs. Realizing, literally, that my bond is my instruments. Songs need to be delivered from the soul. My soul is all I have to offer. I have nothing more to offer. 

Which was the best and highlight moment of your career?

I have so many moments that I appreciate and hold dear to my heart but one that stands out is a concert I did in a village in Germany. The audience sat through a heavy rain to hear me sing. It rained so hard that the canopy over the stage became so heavy with rain that it began to sink. The concert had to be stopped. I appreciated those people sooo much.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I’ve had quite a number of memorable gigs. I really have. One which stands out is when I got my first standing ovation.

"Songs need to be delivered from the soul. My soul is all I have to offer. I have nothing more to offer." 

Which memory makes you smile?

Hmmm, which makes me smile? You know, I am so blessed to have many smiling moments. I suppose that one that stands out is during my performance of “Billie Holiday at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”. During the show Billie gets progressively drunk. We’re about 2/3 through the play when I’m ready to get off stage to get my fix. So in a drunken stupor, I look for a way to get the down the stairs, reaching for a post to hold on to. A woman sitting with reach of my arm extends her hand and says, “I’ll help you, Billie”. She actually thought I was drunk. I thought that was hilarious. Now, ask me about the ones that made me want to cry? 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

A meeting I had very early on in my career with Ms. Germaine Bazzle, a great singer here in New Orleans. I call her Ms. Jazz. Our conversation was about an experience I had onstage where in the middle of singing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, for some reason, I was extremely emotional. With my eyes closed singing the song, tears began falling and I wasn’t aware of it until I had finished the song. When I opened my eyes, people were standing and clapping and my sax player, Julius Handy, gave me his handkerchief. When I realized why he gave me the handkerchief, I walked off the stage and out of the door. I felt like I had just undressed in front of the audience. 

What is the best advice ever given you?

The first question sort of leads to the answering of your second question. When I told Ms. Bazzle about my experience, she look at me and said, “And what’s your point”. I said I felt so naked having exposed my emotions in front of all those folk. She said, “Well, that is what people want to hear and feel. If you can’t give them your emotions, I think you need to make up your mind if you want to sing”. The best advice I’ve ever been given. I didn’t immediately lose my fear but it’s come a long way and I have no problems with showing my emotions now when they show.

"I especially enjoy delivering/singing songs that have a message base to them whether it’s jazz, blues, country or Gospel. I like songs that tell a story." (Photo: Sharon & Little Freddie King)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

I miss the story in the music, the life of the song. Today’s music is filled with beat. Great beats. Love the beats but the lyrics tell a different type of story that’s hard for me to relate to. I’m not saying today’s music it’s not relevant because to the younger generation, I’m sure it’s relevant. I miss the story in the music and the form. Today’s songs have so many lyrics that the form of many is lost, to me.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Hmmm. This is hard to answer as I don’t want to offend any musician or singer. Remember, I’m from a different generation. My hopes are that a lot of the profanity and disrespect is taken out of the music. My fear is that the universal language of music never gets lost.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Wow! I never thought about this before. I don’t know if I have an answer to this one, at least not at this time. I’ll have to think about this. Wait, I have an answer. I would take the pornography out of the videos. It’s unfortunate, in my estimation that sex has to sell music. Makes no sense to me. Really doesn’t and trust me I am no prude. I understand risqué but these videos are sometimes a bit hard to take. 

What does to be a woman in a “Man's World” as James Brown says?

Listen, I think it’s believed that this is a man’s world because man was created first.  Without a woman, as James Brown says, a man wouldn’t be nothing.

What is the status of women in music?

You know, I have no idea of what women are doing in terms of production, promotion, engineering, etc. – that side of the business. I do know that lots of women are writing some great songs and there are some great female musicians. I don’t know if this answers your question but I’m being honest. I really don’t know in which context to answer this question.

What was the relation between the Jazz & Blues circuits and women?

You know, I like jazzy bluesy music. I know there is a difference between jazz and blues. There are people who like listening to jazz who don’t like listening to the blues and vice versa. Blues itself comes in a number of forms or colors. Billie Holiday enjoyed jazz with a blues feeling. She understood the blues but she delivered her music in the jazz vein. Big Mama Thornton did her blues, as she felt it, and it was gutsy, raw and real way according to her emotions. The relationship is what you put on it. Your style.

What means to be Blueswoman?

I dunno. I am jazzy with bluesy feeling, and soul. This is how people tell me they see my performances, my delivery. But to be a Blues woman, means you’ve had some times in your life that are worthy of expressing from your that music style. Do you follow me?

Why did you think that the Billie Holiday's music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Billie Holiday, had those experiences where in life she cried, she ached, she pined, she wanted love in so many different ways, she sought means of dealing with her downfalls and her experiences, those experiences where in the end she realized that she had to pay for her indiscretions, in her music, she played on life’s experiences and she delivered those emotions in her special jazzy bluesy style. She showed her tears and laughter in her music. People relate that.  Always did and still do.

"I am jazzy with bluesy feeling, and soul. This is how people tell me they see my performances, my delivery. But to be a Blues woman, means you’ve had some times in your life that are worthy of expressing from your that music style."

What do you learn about yourself from Billie’s Holliday’s life and what does the blues mean to you?

You know, in a great way, Billie Holiday was shy but she was also honest and had this crazy, warped sense of humor that I personally appreciate. If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you’re taking life a little too seriously. I make fun of myself all the time. I saw a lot of me in Billie. Not a lot of the same experiences but that’s relative. Say it like it is and know when to say it. She was a lady in her shy way but could hang with the best of them.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Gospel music?

Oh, boy, you ask some deep questions for my little music brain. I never really dissect music that much. And I’m certainly no authority or historian on the music. I believe we all have our own translations about relationships and even music genre relationship but what do they really mean to someone else. 

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from New Orleans?

Ooh, a good question about home. Let me see. What’s made me laugh might be different from what has touched me emotionally. What’s made me laugh recently is the joy that that I see in folk, all colors and creeds, that gather for a second line. People enjoy the second line bands so much. The music is generally uplifting, danceable; everyone is together on one accord. That makes me smile. On the other hand, what touches me emotionally is the senseless killings that have been taking place, the total disregard for a God-given life; taking away the breath of a human being, a mother’s crying because her child has been hurt or killed. You know, New Orleans is a wonderful city to live in and visit a wonderful place. And while I know such disregard is happening everywhere, this is my home. The senseless taking of a life baffles me. Life is so precious. But when it comes to my hometown, New Orleans, I do pray for better and it touches me emotionally.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Really and truly, without sounding obvious? I would love to one day see Greece.

Greece has such a history, the ancient ruins. I’m curious about the joie de vive of the people. In many ways it seems like that same love of life the people of Greece have is the same with people here in New Orleans. I’d like to see the day-to-day life of the people, what they enjoy, eat the food, enjoy the music. Yep, the food. Yep, Greece is on my bucklist. 

 

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