Nalley brings a freshness and bravery to her music

Kim Nalley sings Billie Holiday
Written by Tyler Kent

Jazz at Pearl's: Kim Nalley Sings Billie Holiday

If you close your eyes and for the briefest of moments allow the street sounds of San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood to melt away, you might forget that you're not tucked in a booth at Pod's and Jerry's in 1939 Harlem: Billie Holiday at the microphone; Eddie Heywood at the keyboard; and Frank Sinatra around the corner (according to Nalley, he too was a great lover of Lady Day and frequented her acts). In fact, you're at Pearl's, one of the City by the Bay's oldest surviving jazz houses, where owner and San Francisco icon Kim Nalley is currently showcasing the songs of Billie Holiday. Like the venue, Nalley's delicate, versatile voice is reminiscent of a different era, immediately evoking singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. And, having recently played the jazz legend in a biographical drama at the Fellowship Theatre Guild, Nalley's intimate knowledge of and empathy for Billie Holiday makes this revue a special treat.

The unmistakable bluesy, sensual tones of Billie Holiday's music couldn't be better suited to the intimate atmosphere of Pearl's where none of the thirty cocktail tables is more than a few feet away from the action. Singing alongside a fantastic quartet led by the expressive, sensitive Tammy Hall at the piano, Nalley sings a set of emotional material ranging the roller-coaster of Billie Holiday's career. And while the focus is on the devastating love-life that haunted Holiday from her early career visited in songs like "Don't Explain," "My Man," and "I Cover the Waterfront" Nalley brings a freshness and bravery to her music, rendering the material with excitement, insistence, and great joy.

It's refreshing to spend a Saturday night at a venue that offers "true" cabaret: an intimate setting, talented musicians, and most of all healthy doses of spontaneity and swing. I loved watching Nalley choose her songs as the evening progressed, her band ready and willing to go with her. Her asides between songs were full of insights into Billie Holiday's life: her inspirations, her lovers, her legendary concerts, and her struggles. Nalley says she has always thought of Holiday as a jazz singer, rather than a blues singer as she is often classified. And she certainly convinced me. Songs like "Fine and Mellow" can be rendered in one color perhaps dark and subdued as the lyrics might first suggest: "My man don't love me, treats me oh so mean" But Nalley is never satisfied with one color; she digs into the music, exploring the lyric and finding a spectrum to portray, making her concert above all a celebration of a style that, itself, always manages to find a smile.

It might all be the result of Nalley's personal touch. Since returning to San Francisco after a European tour, purchasing Pearl's, and reopening the venue in 2003, she continues to keep the focus on the music, both for the musicians and for the audience. "Some things don't necessarily translate to big, large stadiums," she said while talking about her Billie Holiday repertoire. This music is best served in a setting like Pearl's: cocktail in hand, candlelight below, and Kim Nalley where she belongs. In the spotlight.

Pearl's has live jazz seven nights a week with shows at 8 and 10pm.

A calendar, tickets, and information are online at

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Posted on: Tuesday March 11, 2008 PST