Lady Day's spirit commands stage

Billie Holiday Vocal Competition brings music, soul and style to Artscape crowd


Somewhere between the tempo-setting finger snaps and the final swoosh of her long, coffee-colored dress, Georgene Fountain, with a steady, soulful voice, brought Lady Day back to Baltimore yesterday.

Belting out her Gershwin selections like a star, the Germantown resident took the top prize in yesterday's Billie Holiday Vocal Competition, an annual event tied to Artscape in which 10 singers croon standards recorded by the jazz legend who was raised in Fells Point.

Fountain, the last competitor to take the stage at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, sang so much like Holiday that Carine Babalola couldn't wait for the final note of "Embraceable You" to clear the air before she stood to applaud. Fountain's skill, Babalola said, is her ability to convey emotion - a Holiday forte.

"She reminded me a lot of Billie Holiday, even the way she looked and was dressed - perfect," said Babalola, who lives in Reisterstown. "She has so much feeling and emotion behind her."

It was the second year the competition was held during Artscape, the city's festival of performance and visual arts that took place over the weekend on and around Mount Royal Avenue. Hundreds came into the air-conditioned hall yesterday to trade in the sun and heat for the sultry voices and the sound of the Steinway & Sons piano.

"I'm sure Billie has enjoyed every bit of it," said jazz musician Ruby Glover, sometimes referred to as Baltimore's "godmother of jazz," who was in the audience to support one of her students on stage. Baltimore "will never let her die," Glover said.

Historians debate whether Holiday was actually born in Baltimore, but for decades the city has celebrated her as a native.

For yesterday's competition, 10 semifinalists - including two men - were chosen from 30 recordings submitted by contestants. The judges were not looking for Holiday sound-alikes so much as they were grading on the overall performance, intonation and personal appearance.

"Often we have some jewels in our own backyard that sometimes we forget about," said Eric Conway, chairman of the fine arts department at Morgan State University, who, along with musician Navasha Collins and Baltimore Del. Catherine E. Pugh, judged the competition. "So this is a great opportunity for them."

In addition to the publicity and chance to perform on stage, the winners took home cash prizes - $2,500 for Fountain and $1,500 for Sandra Johnson of Washington, who finished in second place. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, known for his own performances in an Irish rock band, presented the awards.

"I used to aspire once to be a singer myself. I know it's not easy to stand up in front of a lot of people and give it your very best," O'Malley told the contestants. "It is plain to see that music is your passion. It's your gift."

As Fountain headed backstage after her performance, she said she selected music that not only fit her vocal range but also that meant something to her personally. Fountain, who is currently working on an album, first performed in the Holiday competition last year, when she was a semifinalist.

"What attracts me to her is she is able to communicate from her soul. When she sang, you knew exactly what she was feeling," she said. "She just communicated through music that way."

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