Divine Brown Talks Her New Soulpepper Show ‘Billie, Sarah & Ella: Revolutionary Women in Jazz’

Divine Brown

Divine Brown attends the 2022 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame Gala at Toronto's Massey Hall last September. Her new Soulpepper show, 'Billie, Sarah & Ella: Revolutionary Women in Jazz,' premieres this week. Photo: Jeremy Chan/Getty Images

Vocal powerhouse Divine Brown can sing just about anything.

She released her self-titled debut album back in 2005, containing the lilting soul track, “Old Skool Love,” and won a 2009 Juno for her follow-up album, The Love Chronicles. In 2021, she was selected as one of Soulpepper’s five Slaight Music Residents, using her skills to develop new programs for the stage under the music direction of Mike Ross. And together they created and staged The Golden Record, about a 1977 space launch that sent music into space.

In between her year-long residency, the 48-year-old Toronto native performed the greatest hits of Aretha Franklin for the popular note-for-note Classic Album Live concert series; popped in on the 2022 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame to help pay tribute to David Foster; joined fellow R&B singer Sean Jones’ Holiday Soul concert; and put out a long-awaited new single called “Digital Love,” featuring Fingazz.

But the big deal, or even bigger deal, is Brown’s creation of an entire stage show, Billie, Sarah & Ella: Revolutionary Women in Jazz, honouring the trailblazing trio of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. The “live documentary-style concert,” as she’s calling it, runs Feb. 22 to March 5 at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, directed by Soulpepper Artistic Director Weyni Mengesha. Brown also stars in the show as Billie, alongside Renee Rowe (as Sarah), Shakura Dickson (as Ella) and Akosua Amo-Adem (the narrator).


Brown took a break from rehearsals to talk to Zoomer about the production.


KAREN BLISS: Why did you choose to create a show about jazz and these three legendary singers?

DIVINE BROWN: There was no reason other than it just popped up. That’s the way the inspiration came to me. And as a show about jazz, they are the first three ladies came to mind when I thought about jazz music. For deeper context, I don’t think people are aware that jazz has been a part of my career as well. One of the first bands I ever played with was a jazz-fusion band. Jazz is a style of music that I absolutely adore. It wasn’t music that was played at home; it was more of a discovery. So doing a show about jazz singers comes from a deep love for jazz music.


KB: You’re calling Billie, Sarah & Ella: Revolutionary Women in Jazz a live documentary-style concert as opposed to a musical. Can you explain the distinction?

DB: It’s a live documentary-style concert because there’s a lot of factual information about the women, and there’s a bit of commentary in terms of the style that it’s written in … The way that this is set up is that you have a narrator on stage reading the script, like a narrator would in a film documentary, and three women representing these artists.


KB: What are the nuances between the voices the audience will hear to nail each of those women? We all know Billie had a very distinct rasp, but what about Sarah and Ella?

DB: I’m not approaching it in a way where I’m trying to nail the very specific sound of these ladies. It’s incredibly difficult to do that. In the searching process, yes, I had moments where I was like, ‘Okay, I’m looking for a certain kind of tonality to represent the ladies,’ but this is not about sounding exactly like them versus an interpretation.


KB: Why did you choose to play Billie?

DB: I picked Billie simply because I’ve sung Billie’s songs before and I find them challenging. The reason that I say that is not because she had a very unique tone — she does have a rasp — but I find her challenging from the perspective that there was an energy that Billie brought to each of her songs that was so incredibly unique unto her. That’s what makes her special and spectacular to a lot of people.

Upon doing almost two years’ worth of research on this project, she had so many accolades from so many different styles of singers, including Frank Sinatra, who revered her, had a really great things to say about Billie and was respected by all of her peers … So my choice was the challenge. I do love all three of those women for very different reasons. In a perfect world, I would’ve did all of them [laughs]. But I wanted to mix it up and I wanted to do the most challenging one, which is Billie because her tone is nothing like mine. But I do love to emulate vocalists that I enjoy. I spent a lot of time emulating Sarah Vaughan.


Divine Brown
Divine Brown, above, says she challenged herself by choosing to play Billie Holiday, because her tone was completely different from Brown’s own. Photo: Daniel Malavasi


KB: Were you named after her, because she was called The Divine One?

DB: [Laughs.] No, no, no. I learned a lot from Sarah Vaughan. I spent so much time studying how she approached scatting, for instance. It was very uniquely different. And her tone I really enjoy because she had that deep, rich tone, but beautiful high notes as well that she did effortlessly, which is a big part of the reason why they called her The Divine One. Because she could hit this soprano note and had a bit of an operatic quality sometimes to her voice.


KB: Revolutionary Women of Jazz must have been a lot of work — the song selection, weaving the stories and connecting it with a likely multigenerational audience. How has the whole experience of creating this been?

DB: It’s been amazing. I’ve been wanting to be on the other side, the creative side of something like this, for a long time. I have done musicals — I’m not a musical theatre diehard by any stretch of the imagination. I have had several of those experiences sprinkled throughout my career and I’ve learned a lot, but I tend to go for things in the musical theatre realm that are very different and creative. The first major musical that I did was Rent. I loved the approach to that because it was very new and fresh for its time. I loved that sort of vibe. And so there’s an interesting space that’s beginning to happen when it comes to concerts and recreating some of the legacy artists that are out there. I really do appreciate this realm. It’s definitely got me thinking about things in a different capacity. And in terms of creatively, it’s another thing to add to my list as things that I can do within the creative space of music.

KB: Given that the audience will likely be intergenerational, what do you hope younger people, who might not be familiar with Billie, Ella and Sarah, will take away from the show?

DB: They get to learn something. It is Black History Month so people get to learn a bit about artists that they weren’t aware of.  And people who are aware of them, they learn something about them that they didn’t know. That’s what it’s about, a little bit of history about the lives of these women.

Billie, Sarah & Ella: Revolutionary Women in Jazz runs from Feb. 22 to March 5 at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre. Click here for more information.