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Lea DeLaria Knows How to Save Jazz

June 5, 2018

It’s a long flight from Australia to San Francisco. That’s the route that Lea DeLaria will be traveling right before her concert at the SFJAZZ Center on Wednesday, June 13, on tour behind her new album, House of David (Ghostlight Records). But that’s only a fraction of how far her name and fame have spread, mostly due to her notorious, and hilarious, reputation as the butch lesbian Big Boo, one of the inmates in the long-running, award-winning Netflix TV series Orange Is the New Black. Some of these fans have begun to discover her several jazz recordings, but few among them realize that DeLaria grew up Catholic, singing alongside her jazz pianist father, in St. Louis, Missouri, and adjoining East St. Louis, Illinois.

In 1980, at age 22, DeLaria moved to San Francisco and secured a place in the gay auxiliary of the budding standup-comedy scene. She created revues which showcased both her musicality and her forthright homosexuality. After she’d relocated to the East Coast, an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993, the first such for an openly gay comic, led to other TV shots and a couple of comedy albums. DeLaria took her role as taxi driver Hildy Esterhazy in the musical On the Town to Broadway, where she earned critical acclaim and casting in on- and off-Broadway shows and independent films over several years.

A signing with the Warner Jazz label had DeLaria recording and touring out of both New York and London, while continuing in theater. A role was created for her when she was recruited for the debut of the Orange Is the New Black series in 2013. The newly sexagenarian DeLaria spoke with SFCV from her Brooklyn apartment, about her parallel careers and the David Bowie tribute album she’ll be showcasing here.

How do folks who know you as Big Boo respond to their discovery of your "hidden" singing talent?

Everybody responds very positively. There are younger fans who think I sprang forth fully formed from the head of Zeus, but once they hear me and Google the music, they’re “Omigod, she’s got all these albums out! And she’s been on Broadway!”

Onstage here, will you play at all to your TV reputation?

No, I’m always one hundred per cent me. And I’ll pull no punches. The current administration’s going to get battered. And the people of San Francisco will love that.

So they’ll be hearing more than just what’s on the CD, which they’ll be able to buy.

One, I’m going to be talking, which doesn’t happen on the album, so you’ll be entertained by me being funny. Two, we have live concert versions of the songs, which are different from the album. There’s a soloing situation, and you’re going to be seeing my band, which is all female jazz musicians, some of the best musicians out there. But because they’re female, they don’t get hired. My politics run deep in every direction.

I first saw you, and interviewed you, back in the early ’80s, when both standup comedy and gay rights advocacy were in full flower. I remember you billed yourself as “The Fucking Dyke.”

Oh, that was so long ago! San Francisco was the only place for someone to develop something like that. I got my start in 1982, at the Valencia Rose. A lot of us got our start there, including Whoopi Goldberg. And I talk about that onstage now, when I speak at universities. I kind of give a historical perspective of my community, and I talk about the reclamation of the language, using it as a political tool.

I also remember you starting your act with a song: “My girl is red hot, your girl ain’t diddly-squat.” Who’d been your musical influences?

My dad taught me music, but everybody in my family was musical, going back generations. It was always about Betty Carter and Ella Fitzgerald for me. Ella taught me how to scat sing, and Betty taught me how to go further out with it.

And how did you integrate music with the standup?

My standup was crazy and wild and loud and in-your-face, and it never stopped, it just pounded at you.

That’s part of what I loved about it.

Well, most people could only take that for about three minutes, so almost immediately, I put music into it.

And you didn’t play exclusively at gay venues. I remember seeing you at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

I couldn’t just be preaching to the choir. That’s why it was also important that I was the first openly gay comic to perform on television, that I became the lead in a Broadway musical, that I signed a record deal with Warner Jazz, and that I’ve now become this thing that I am, which is an incredibly worldwide-known television star. And I’ve done all of that without once being in the closet. I was able to reach people and effect a societal attitude change towards my people.

Along the way to those achievements, how did your act change?

It used to be 75 per cent comedy and 25 per cent music, then it became 50-50, and now it’s way more music. It’s a concert where I’m funny.

I recall seeing your name in The New York Times, when you made it into Bernstein, Comden, and Green’s On the Town, and feeling proud for you. How did that happen?

It was kind of a crazy story. Shakespeare in the Park, in 1997, wanted to do a musical that celebrated New York City, because there was some huge anniversary [the 100th anniversary of the City’s consolidation]. [Director] George Wolfe couldn’t find a Hildy, the very brash cab driver character. He went through the “norms” at the time and didn’t like anybody. He went to Los Angeles, he went to London, then came back to New York and literally started seeing men, including [cross-dressing performers] Charles Busch and Billy Porter. The casting directors at the Public Theatre told me that finally, George Wolfe said, “What makes Hildy funny? Hildy acts like a man! We need a lesbian!” And the casting directors said, “Actually, we have a lesbian,” and they brought me in. This was a couple of years before the whole Ellen [DeGeneres] thing, and no one else was out there. [After getting cast in On the Town] I won a lot of awards, it moved to Broadway, I won some more awards.

But wasn’t there something about your stage persona and voice which very much fit Hildy?

Oh heck, yeah. I have a very old-school showbizzy voice, when I’m Broadway singing. I’m a belter. I know how to spread my chest and access my diaphragm and mix with my head voice. Even at the age of 60, I can belt a D-sharp still. Your voice is supposed to deteriorate when you get older, mine appears to be getting stronger and stronger. But I can access an entirely different muscle when I’m singing jazz. Sometimes I belt, when I’m doing [Bowie’s] “Life on Mars,” but I also know dynamics, I know how to access even higher notes in a smaller style, when I’m doing jazz. Though I used to be able to do three or four shows a night, and I can’t do that anymore. I want to keep my voice intact.

As a thespian — and maybe as a lesbian — how did it feel to be on Broadway?

Fantastic! It was bucket list stuff for me, to be downstage center on a Broadway stage, belting a D-sharp. There’s nothing that makes me happier than doing that, and I hope to return to that very soon.

And how did you get from there to Orange/Black?

I went on to play Eddie and Dr. Scott in the Broadway revival of Rocky Horror, I was Mama Morton in Chicago. And then there were millions of off-Broadway musicals and plays, and some independent films. But it’s the Broadway career which got me signed to Warner Jazz. Then Orange/Black showed up on the radar, and what idiot casting director wasn’t going to call me? So I auditioned. There was no Big Boo in the script, but when they saw me, they realized there should be a part for me, and they wrote Big Boo for me.

What was it like to work in that character and with that cast and those writers?

They were no doubt the best writers in Hollywood, the best writing room you could ever see. And the cast was beautiful, lovely, talented, crazy, great human beings. I’ve always said we’re like family. We all hang out together, we are all friends, we support each other’s projects, we go to see each other live. We are the Orange family! Even when we’re written off or pulled off the show.

I don’t know whether I have any business asking if you’re in a monogamous relationship.

You have no business asking me that, but I’m single. I’m famously single.

That could be part of a song lyric. Was it you that chose to do the latest album as a Bowie tribute?

Yeah, that was my idea. I heard Bowie in ’74, “Starman” was the big hit. And I remember going, “What is that sound, who is this guy?” and then looking at his pictures. Then there he was on Saturday Night Live, wearing a skirt! So as a young queer artist from the Midwest, seeing something like David Bowie was incredibly eye-opening. And his music is genius! The hardest part was trying to narrow it down to 12 songs. There were so many of his songs that lent themselves to jazz, I might have to do a Changes Two follow-up record.

What of your own do you bring to the Bowie material?

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.

Tell me what you mean. I might agree with you.

I am telling you, Jeff: In America, no one goes to jazz. You look out at your audience, and it’s like Cocoon III. How many times can you hear the same 50 songs played over and over again? We need to get young people involved with jazz, and to expand what jazz is. This was the whole idea of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and all those people who gave us bebop in the first place. And in some ways, I find that the people who are out there doing jazz now are traitors to that idea.

And why not David Bowie? He has an oeuvre that expands over five decades. If you look at my audiences, you will see people you do not ordinarily see in a jazz club, and you will also see younger people. There’s an SOS, I feel, happening to America’s one true art form, and someone needs to be out there making sure it stays alive. That’s one of my jobs.

Will there be something special, after that tour in Australia, in bringing your show back here to San Francisco?

Yes, there is. More than anyone else, San Franciscans know what I do. And I will be able to go back to Taqueria El Toro, at 17th and Valencia, and have a super burrito. I’m going to take the whole band!

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.