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Dizzy Holiday

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On Holiday: Local singer and bassist Dizzy Burnett celebrates the legendary music of Billie Holiday on Friday night in a second annual tribute show at Kuumbwa Jazz Center.

Santa Cruz's 'real deal' pays musical tribute to a vocal legend, the lady who sang the blues

By Traci Hukill

The first thing you notice about Dizzy Burnett before she hops up on a stool behind her upright bass and starts singing the blues is that she's child-sized. Small-boned and energetic, with a shock of amber hair and enormous mournful brown eyes, she resembles a Daddy's girl who insisted on playing the biggest, best instrument she could imagine. All you can see of her once she starts playing are her irrepressible mass of hair, those expressive eyes and two small hands flying up and down the frets like precise birds.

The second thing you notice when she and longtime musical partner Grover Coe get down to business with a jaunt through "These Foolish Things" is her instantly likable voice. It's like raw silk--smooth enough to feel good, but roughed up in places with a pleasant, smoky nap that assures you Burnett's the real thing. It's just the kind of voice to pay a birthday tribute to blues great Billie Holiday.

But that comes later. Tonight the stage is simple--just Burnett and her upright behemoth, Coe and his hollow-bodied electric, and an amp. They plunk and croon their way through standards like "God Bless the Child" and "Makin' Whoopee," filling space between songs with easy, comfortable banter. When Coe sings the ironic, heartfelt "Alimony," a group of men at the bar roll their eyes and laugh knowingly. The two sing "Secret Agent Man." It's fun and relaxed.

"I'm sincere. I'm not a pretentious artist. I'm just doing what I feel is right," emphasizes Burnett several afternoons later over coffee.

The reticent Coe echoes the sentiment. "We're the real deal," he nods, a slight smile on his face.

Right now the "real deal" is funneling hours into the recording studio, getting ready for the final push to put a CD out in May. It's an intense collective effort the two find exhilarating, and Burnett makes no bones about it: More studio work is definitely in her vision of the future. So is travel, preferably a European tour of bistros--"I'm a bistro girl at heart," she winks--and more public gigs, like the upcoming Monterey Blues Festival in June.

But Brooklyn-born Burnett, née Laurie Ann, is less forthcoming about things past. Raised in a blue-collar family to whom music was always important, she spent enamored hours watching old movies of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth. That's where she first heard Billie Holiday, whose soundtracks crystallized the glamour of the '40s for her.

After an adolescence she only describes as "wild, but peace-loving," and during which she picked up the nickname Dizzy for the first time, she came to California and started playing music with her ex-husband. A completely different set of people dubbed her Dizzy again, and this time it stuck.

Then there was a stint with Del Rey ... and here she stops. She's tired of discussing the past. "It's like the message right now is 'Don't look back,' " she explains, a slight frown creasing her brow. "I'm growing like a weed right now. Every time I get up on stage it's like a new experience. I'm trying new tones, new phrasings. It's like I'm being pulled creatively."

Pulled toward Billie's birthday bash, apparently. "I love Billie Holiday. She's my first link to the jazz world," Burnett smiles, warming to the topic. "Ella [Fitzgerald] to me is like God. She's like the Bible ... but I feel more of an affinity with Billie Holiday because she's more vulnerable. I feel like a tribute is something I should do, something I want to do, and it always works out that--I do," she finishes simply with a laugh.

Maybe the next thing you notice after talking to Burnett for a while is that she's one determined lady, regardless of her size and nickname. And when it comes to singing the blues, it's certainly serving her well.

The Dizzy Burnett Quartet--including Grover Coe, saxophonist Jim Hannibal and drummer Dennis Norbee--will leave a Favorite Billie Song box for suggestions when they celebrate the star's birthday in a tribute Friday night (9pm) at Kuumbwa. Tickets cost $6. For more info, call 42227.

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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