By Leslie Bailey
The Indianapolis Star
DeLaria talks about TV, David Bowie, jazz and diversity.
If you only know Lea DeLaria as Carrie "Big Boo" Black on the Netflix hit series "Orange is the New Black," it's time to catch up.
In addition to her work as a comic and Broadway performer, DeLaria, 57, has appeared in roles on film and television since the early 90s. She is credited with being the first openly gay comic on television in America following a 1993 appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show."
She also happens to be a seasoned jazz musician.
Born and raised in Belleville, Ill., DeLaria was exposed to jazz at an early age (her father, Robert, was a part-time jazz pianist). In 2001, she released her first album, "Play It Cool," on Warner/WEA records. Her latest album, "House Of David: delaria + bowie = jazz," released on Ghostlight Records in 2015, is a tribute to David Bowie songs with jazz renditions of titles like "Fame," "Space Oddity," and "Star Man," featuring DeLaria's vocals.
DeLaria will perform songs from the album at The Cabaret at The Columbia Club March 18-19. I spoke to her by phone about her upcoming performance, expansive career and the one thing that's been lingering on her "To Do" list.
Question: The show is based on your album "House of David." Can you tell me about the creation of that album?
Answer: I've been working on the album since 2011 so several years of whittling down many songs and trying to figure out the best way to reinvent them. It took quite a long time to get that going — that and the fact that there's not a real jazz label anymore. The whole industry has changed so much so that also got in the way when I lost my record label and had to deal with how I was going to do this. But it's been a labor of love of mine for many, many years and I'm incredibly pleased with it, from the album artwork to the music. It's the best thing I've ever done.
Q: Fusing the music of David Bowie and jazz, with your voice, creates such a unique sound but it works.
A: It's one of the reasons I do the sort of contemporary jazz that I do where I take the stuff people know, not just the standard American Songbook stuff or the be-bop stuff that only jazz people know. I work within the confines of music that populist knows. When you look at my "Double Standards" record or "Play It Cool," who would think that a swing version of "The Ballad of Sweeny Todd" would work? Not only does it work, it was No. 1 on Jazz Radio when it came out, for six months.
This is the one true American art form and it's dying because the people who are involved in the medium just continue to do the same hundred songs over and over again. When jazz first came out it was about inventiveness, it was about doing something differently, seeing something different, being committed to it.
Q: Are the majority of people coming to your show even jazz fans?
A: No, they're not jazz fans. That's a very cool thing for me to be able to say, too. The Bowie show has been particularly successful in that the people who come to see the show don't really know jazz, and they're seeing jazz for the first time, done by me in this way. It opens their minds to something different and hopefully will expand listenership of jazz. Of course, I get jazz fans, but I started doing this here in New York, I do a midnight show every other Wednesday at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club and that's packed every time and not with jazz fans. It's young people, "Orange is the New Black Fans," Bowie fans and a few jazz fans. It's a cool thing. It gets me very excited.
Q: You've been quoted as saying that it's been your "life's work to change people's perceptions of butch, queer and LGBT." How do you feel your work has done that?
A: "Orange is the New Black" opened me up to a whole new audience. My audience is people who like jazz and people who like comedy and people who like Broadway. But more than anything my audience is people who like "Orange is the New Black." It's the No. 1 show in the world. It's watched by over 60 million people, and there doesn't seem to be any kind of age distinguishment. It's all ages, it's all races, it's all genders. The fact that this show has brought me out to a whole lot of people that did not know I existed before, is awesome.
Q: A lot of creative people do many creative things but really have one true passion. Is the case for you?
A: As long as I'm entertaining people, I'm generally pretty happy. I probably like television more because I get paid a hell of a lot more. But I love performing for a live audience there's nothing quite like that. That instant gratification, people laughing immediately, people applauding immediately — that's it's own kind of little piece of heaven for any performer, I think.
Q: You've done film, TV, music, comedy, books, Broadway — is it possible there's anything left on your list of things to do that you haven't done yet?
A: Yeah, I'd love to get a date with Sigourney Weaver. I've been working on that one since the 80s. I'm still hanging in there that it's gonna happen.
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