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Was it fate or a higher power that led jazz legend Billie Holiday into the life of a young and unknown singer from Ceylon to exert such a profound influence on her in their brief friendship?
Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
Yolande Bavan will always remember Billie’s words – “Whatever you do when you sing, you tell the truth. Sing the truth. If it’s painful sing that pain. Don’t dodge. Because music you don’t dodge”.
Decades later, at a concert in Colombo, her audience felt that pain, when Yolande sang the Beatles’ ‘Fool on the Hill’ dedicating it to her father.
Misunderstood and assailed by misfortune, he it was who had given her that love for jazz and sent her forth on a journey that would take the wide-eyed, pigtailed slip of a girl from Dickman’s Road, Bambalapitiya to unimaginable heights as a jazz singer and actress in London and New York, to write her own piece of jazz history as the surprise replacement for Annie Ross in the renowned trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
It was as Yolande Woolf that she went to London and when she began making her way as an actress, her friend Indian film director Waris Hussein who had cast her as Cleopatra in the production of Caesar and Cleopatra told her that going as just ‘Yolande’ as she had been doing since she got on stage simply would not do.
“It sounds like a stripper,” he said disapprovingly. “You should be Yolande Bavan – Yolande Bavan from Ceylon.”
She is back in her island home this sunny January on holiday; disappointingly for those who remember her lyrical voice there is no performance, her only engagement a talk at a Rotary luncheon not surprisingly titled ‘All that Jazz’ and time to enjoy the Literary Festival in Galle and an unending supply of tea.
“Too much tea,” she says smiling, remembering how growing up she had disdained tea even though on her stepfather’s estate there was this wonderful aroma of tea wafting from the factory.
“I thought coffee more sophisticated until I lived in London and suddenly had a turn of tastebuds.”
My Sinhalese is coming back, she adds in some surprise, that after sixty years the memory still pries it out from the recesses of her mind.
Yolande’s mother Irene Cecilia Walles was a concert pianist and as young as three she began playing the piano and later breezing through the Royal Academy exams.
That this would be her career was never disputed. But her parents’ shattering divorce left her sister Jean and her as wards of court and necessitated a move from Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya to Good Shepherd Convent, Kotahena where the Irish nuns were strict disciplinarians.
Only one Irish American nun realising her passion for music gave her the freedom to sing and play the piano and organ for Mass. But the music lessons with her mother were over and a dream that she and her mother had shared, had died.
Her mother had not even let her have her vaccinations on her arm for it would leave a scar unbecoming on stage, she says. After her mother remarried, Yolande divided her school holidays between her parents.
A painful memory is of being dropped off at one end of Good Shepherd Convent and having to make the long lonely walk across the length of the school, past the deserted netball and tennis courts to where her father would pick her up from the other gate.
Only the orphans were still there in school she says remembering how sorry she felt for them. It pricked her consciousness that they would be so bereft, she says.
Her parents’ divorce left deep scars. To this day, she says she cannot bear raised voices and anger –“I try to stay away from anything that is really jarring,” she says.
But her father later put her into St. Paul’s Milagiriya “a lot of Burghers were there” and in that more relaxed atmosphere, young Yolande blossomed.
The glory days: A Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan album
She became sports captain, formed the school’s first cricket team, going on to become school captain or head girl. And of course, she played the piano and sang.
It was her friends at St. Paul’s who taught her a Doris Day song and pushed her to enter a competition conducted by Radio Ceylon and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
She won and was given her own fortnightly radio show on Radio Ceylon ‘Swingtime’ backed by the likes of Stuart de Silva on the piano, Ghazali Amit on the guitar, Cass Ziard on drums, Jimmy van Sanden on bass.
One of those involved in the show was an Australian – Graham Evans, who insisted she should go to Australia.
Peter Wille, a well known cricketer who had lived down Dickman’s Road (“I had gone to school with his sister”) took her to meet Graeme Bell, a famous pianist in Australia. Bell hearing her sing took her on to his Dixieland band. Yolande was 16!
She can see clearly now the pattern that emerged in the fabric of her life and that strong underlying pull of destiny that took her forward unwavering.
“You know when you are young you have such confidence, maybe foolhardy but still confidence. As you get older you start getting insecure because so many arrows have come your way, so much criticism, judgements, gossip.
You have to have your faith. Somehow I felt something was undergirding me. I went in innocently, thinking it’s all going to work out.”
If her mother had schooled her in the classics, it was her father who awakened a feel for jazz. “I came home one day – I had to do a paper on Aldous Huxley and he was listening to Radio Tangier and he said ‘You have to hear this song’.
I think it was Charlie Parker. I remember he said ‘that man is in terrible pain’.” Her father began playing more jazz for her, and his friends Al van Starrex, Cass Ziard, Dan Durairaj and Lawrie Perera would go to the docks when the American ships came in and buy jazz albums and play them for her. “I loved the piano so I listened to George Shearing.”
Hearing Sarah Vaughan her father likened her voice to a choir of angels. Years later it was Sarah Vaughan who recommended that Yolande go to America.
When Bell and his band were asked to go to Korea to entertain the combined services, Yolande went too, performing to a largely male audience, and then joining Bell to perform in jazz crazy Japan.
Back home after one and a half years, singing briefly for Donovan Andree, her father realising that Ceylon could not offer the platform for her considerable talents suggested she go to England.
Looking back she sees how much pain the separation would have caused him. “He lived alone at No. 3, Dickman’s Road, with me and one servant. He never had anybody, but he gave me the freedom to go.”
She hardly knew anyone in London but Graeme Bell had told her to go and see the jazz musician Humphrey Lyttelton who sent her to his agent Lyn Dutton.
Dutton became her agent and soon she was performing on variety shows. When the call came to audition for a TV play, she was sick with bronchitis and running a fever, but went nevertheless.
“I was to play a terrorist from Algiers who comes to England to kill. I hadn’t acted in my life.” She landed the role.
Was it God or fate, she asks. The great master director, the Cecil B de Mille of the heavens, she says, with an expressive, expansive gesture.
Yolande’s career as an actress had taken off. “I was doing plays. I got cast in two more TV plays, I did another play where I played Sammy Davis Jnr’s wife in ‘Day of the Fox” for the BBC.
Then she was Cleopatra which started at the Cambridge Arts and then moved to the West End at the Duchess Theatre, followed by the Greek tragedy Oresteia at the Old Vic.”I was never better in my life,” she says, marvelling at what chances came her way.
How she came to sing with the top jazz vocal trio in the world is a story worth retelling. Busy with her acting career, she was deeply immersed in jazz hanging around the bands when they performed, “like a groupie” she laughs.
In early ’62, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross came to England with the Count Basie band on tour and Yolande who was doing a revue called New Cranks by choreographer John Cranko, met Annie Ross who had been in the original show called Cranks. Twelve days later she would be replacing her in America.
It happened at a party –Lambert and Hendricks were there, she says. There was a lot of smoking and drinking. “I was helping my friend clean the ashtrays and hit the high note singing along to Dizzy Gillespie. “This voice next to me said, ‘who did that’ and I said, ‘I did’. It was Lambert.
“You’re a singer?” “I’m an actress.”
It was about 1 a.m.on a Monday morning in London, a few days later when the phone rang. It was Jon Hendricks. “There’s a plane ticket and your work permit at the American embassy, we want you to come on Wednesday,” he said.
“To do what?” she asked, totally bewildered and sleepy. “To sing with us,” came the reply. “I cannot sing that high.” “You were recommended by Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams. Will you please study our music,” he said.
Agreeing to join them on Saturday, she borrowed the records and tried frantically to learn the songs.
“I thought I would get to New York and rehearse. My friend Waris Hussein took me to the airport and I wore a saree.” She had never been to America. Even if nothing came of it at least she would have seen the skyscrapers, she thought. It was May 5th, 1962.
Dave Lambert was waiting to meet her. They boarded another plane and flew upstate to Schenectady, to Union College. The concert had started: Tom Paxton, a well known folk singer had opened the show and there was a crowd of 2,500.
The announcement came “Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. “They pushed me out on stage in my saree with my PanAm bag still on me.”
That was the baptism of fire for the diminutive saree-clad singer from Ceylon. As Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan, the trio had a brief, dazzling stint recording three albums. It was at a party thrown by RCA records that she met Hollywood legend Cary Grant and an unlikely friendship began.
The day after she remembers the phone call from his assistant inviting her to his office at Universal Studios and the silver blue Rolls Royce arriving to pick her up. Grant showed her around the sets, took her to lunch and they talked.
In the four weeks she spent in Los Angeles, they met many times. “It was not romantic, I think he admired our music,” she says. “He was always kind and solicitous.”
The star however, who had the greatest influence on her life was Billie Holiday, who had told a bashful saree-clad Yolande at a Paris restaurant, that if she had a daughter she would want her to be just like her.
There grew a strong bond between them, with Billie teaching her songs. They met again a year later in London when Billie came to the UK to do a TV show and Yolande stayed with her in her dressing room as she taped the show trying to keep her from drinking. It was the last time she heard her sing.The emotion was there but the voice was failing.
“She was like a mentor in a way,” Yolande reflects. “She would say ‘When you come to America, if I hear that you are smoking dope I will come and slap you upside your head – it was an American phrase.
She would also say she would get me the 28 flavours of ice cream at Howard Johnson.” Significantly, five days after Yolande got to New York with Lambert and Hendricks, they did a late night tribute to Billie Holiday (Billie died in July 1959) and the thought came to her that if Billie were there, she would have got her the 28 flavours.
In the whirlwind days of Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, they were at all the famed jazz venues – the Newport Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and even after she left the trio, the roles kept coming, on stage, on TV and film, with some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
Three years ago though an unfortunate fall on a dark stage while in the play ‘My Granny the Goldfish’ in Toronto, necessitated spinal surgery.
Five difficult weeks compounded by an infection kept her in hospital. Your life gets altered, she says, talking frankly of confronting the frailties of age.
These days she focuses on mindful meditation: to be in the present, to be mindful of the present, not be caught up in projecting problems to the future.Books are never far away – the 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi is a favourite. “And the Serenity prayer..I read it every morning.”
Not much known is that she has long been narrating books – a grand total of 540 audio books under the Talking Books programme done by the Library of Congress for the Blind, for which she received the Alexander Scorby Award for Narrator of the Year.
The first book she did for them in 1975 was ‘a body stripper’ – a steamy Barbara Cartland where she confesses, she was hard pressed at times not to dissolve into laughter.
Narrating the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Yogananda in three hefty volumes, was the toughest -it took a gruelling six months and was only possible thanks to the help of a kind and erudite Buddhist monk who helped her with the slokas.
At the Rotary luncheon, she talked of the wheel, the Rotary symbol, the cycles, the circles of life, some interweaving, some drifting off and that quest for greater compassion and service.
Though she leaves next weekend back to her New York apartment and her beloved cats ‘Rama’ and ‘Sita’, this country will not be far from her thoughts.
“I really would like to come back and do some masterclasses and talk to young people, about how to steer their own truth and not someone else’s.”
“That’s the wonderful thing about getting older – you have experienced things and you can talk about it. Everything is not roses – there are always thorns but you have to learn how to put the bandage when the thorns stick and not let it disrupt your faith. It’s easy to say but difficult to do.”
“Everything with me has a cycle, or a circle or some unknown factor,” she reflects. “That’s why I think I am so blessed in my life. Every morning I say ‘dear God thank you for making me be born in Sri Lanka’.