Jazz vocalist, activist Barbara Dane: Still adding to her legacy at 91

Barbara Dane celebrates her 91st birthday and the release of the new anthology Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs Thursday at Freight & Salvage. Photo: Courtesy Smithsonian/Folkways

It’s quite possible that one of 2018’s best jazz vocal albums was recorded some six decades ago. Let me explain. Smithsonian/Folkways recently released the anthology Hot Jazz, Cool Blues & Hard-Hitting Songs, a double album that encompasses a large but hardly comprehensive swath of Barbara Dane’s music. Never interested in fitting neatly into music industry slots, Dane, a longtime Oakland resident, was guided by her social conscience, and the album includes many of the freedom songs and protest anthems that she sang at rallies and events around the country. But Hot Jazz also offers a potent reminder that Dane was the era’s greatest white blues singer, a gift that overlapped considerably with her nonpareil command of jazz.

Co-produced by her daughter Nina Menendez and Jeff Place, the project offers the first glimpse of previously unreleased music from Dane’s extensive archives, including pieces like a 1959 rendition of “Basin Street Blues” recorded at the Los Angeles folk haven the Ash Grove, and a 1960 version of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” from Chicago’s Café Continental with the great pianist Art Hodes and his Orchestra. Most tantalizing are three 1961 Ash Grove tracks with Dane swinging joyfully backed by her lock-step trio with highly underappreciated pianist, cornetist and vocalist Kenny Whitson and pioneering bassist Wellman Braud (an essential member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1926-35).

Dane credits her daughter with uncovering the treasure trove of tapes. “Nina discovered all this material sitting in my basement in boxes gathering dust,” Dane says. “She had it digitized and when we could hear it there was a whole lot of music that was recorded well under various circumstances. I was shocked. Some of the best recordings I don’t remember where it was or why or who’s playing. But what they really capture is what the times were about musically.”

Barbara Dane at a San Francisco anti-war march in 1964. Photo: Erick Webb.

The fact that Dane is preparing her archives doesn’t mean that she’s done adding to it yet. She celebrates her 91st birthday Thursday at Freight & Salvage with the great pianist Tammy Hall and veteran bassist Ruth Davies, players featured on Dane’s excellent 2016 album Throw It Away (Dreadnaught Music). Daria Johnson, who contributed mightily to the success of Pamela Rose’s Blues Is a Woman production, holds down the drum chair on Thursday. And Dane’s son, Havana-based guitarist and blues harmonica master Pablo Menendez, performs as a special guest.


Dane first heard Tammy Hall perform more than a decade ago at Anna’s Jazz Island in Berkeley and was so impressed that she was determined to work with her. It was a period when she had largely given up performing and recording to care for her Alzheimer-stricken husband, Irwin Silber, the writer, activist, and co-founder and longtime editor of the folk music magazine Sing Out! Encouraged to get back to her music by Pablo Menendez and Cuban sound engineer Oscar Autie, Dane spent two days recording with the trio and some special guests at Autie’s El Cerrito Studios, which yielded “one of the albums I’m most proud of,” Dane says.

“We made it with such ease and they brought such grace to it. Almost every song was a first take, and we made the whole album in two afternoons. I wish I could have worked that way over the years. Why didn’t I? Most of the singing I did was being invited to perform at some event. I was being hosted and treated royally but not being paid. I didn’t ever consider my work as a career. I didn’t think, I’m going to do an album and then a tour. None of that entered my world. I had an incredibly generous partner in Irwin Silber. He was doing fantastic writing and political analysis to further his main interest, peace and justice, and he understood the value of my becoming a kind of symbol for those movements.”

In the coming years the full scope of Dane’s contributions to an array of interconnected progressive movements will come into focus via the Barbara Dane Legacy Project (“which sounds ostentatious,” Dane says).  Spearheaded by Nina Menendez, who’s carved out her own cultural niche as the producer of the Bay Area Flamenco Festival, the Legacy Project includes the Maureen Gosling-directed documentary Barbara Dane: On My Way, an autobiography, more previously unreleased recordings, and access to her archives.

“She saved everything,” Nina Menendez says. “When I started looking through the entire house I found correspondence, playbills, posters, memorabilia, and of course a big music collection with LPs and CDs. And I found a big stash of reel to reel tapes and cassettes in a dusty cabinet in the basement, a lot of live recordings made in various places going back to the late 1950s.”

Fortuitously, sound engineer Jessica Thompson, who specializes in mastering, restoring and preserving vintage audio recordings, had connected with Dane a few years ago via The Caffè Lena Folk Music Recordings Project. She relocated to Berkeley just as Dane and Menendez decided to take the plunge and digitize all the live recordings. Working out of a studio in the Fantasy Building, Thompson turned the live tracks released on Hot Jazz into intimate glimpses of Dane’s artistry.

Barbara Dane and Lightning Hopkins. Photo: Chris Strachwitz

“Some were not so well recorded, and some were not so well preserved,” Menendez says. “Some were definitely in need of Jessica Thompson’s magic to restore them and bring out the material. There’s a lot more. The idea was to leave bread crumbs, to give samples of the kind of stuff that’s on these tapes. I’m especially excited about the material recorded with her trio with Wellman Braud and Kenny Whitson, including live performances at Sugar Hill, the club that she founded in North Beach in 1961. Those are really special. They really reveal Barbara to be one of the great jazz voices of the day.”

For Dane, one of the most pleasurable discoveries was a jam session with old-time music legend Doc Watson with their impromptu duet of dueling blues “You Don’t Know Me” and “You Don’t Know My Mind.” “I always fantasized I might be able to work with him,” Dane says. “But his life and work were very well defined and it was never possible. But we were in some place, I don’t know where, just playing around together, experimenting, flirting musically. The sound quality was so good. Jessica Thompson gets credit for the remastering. It’s under her master hand that it all sounds as good as it does. She took things made decades ago, and made it sound up to date.”


The world has changed around her radically, but Dane’s timeless voice never sounds out of date. Always looking out for younger artists, she returns to the Freight on Saturday June 16 to help harmonica ace Mark Hummel’s event celebrating the 85th birthday of swamp blues great Lazy Lester. In addition to Dane, the talent-laden program features Hummel and Deep Basement Shakers, Guy Davis, Joe Beard, HowellDevine, and Lazy Lester himself.

Recommended: Tony Corman, La Peña / Sheldon Brown, Back Room

Berkeley guitarist, composer and arranger Tony Corman brings his 16-piece Morechestra to La Peña on Saturday with special guest vocalist Nicolas Bearde. And reed master Sheldon Brown introduces the latest incarnation of his band at The Back Room on Sunday. With Brown playing clarinet and soprano and tenor saxophones, the sextet features trumpeter Darren Johnston, guitarist Dave Mac Nab, pianist Dan Zemelman, bassist Michael Wilcox, and drummer Alan Hall.