Giving voice to Artscape


With her silky green dress catching the early afternoon breeze and her voice soaring strong above it, Debbie Poole serenaded Baltimore yesterday.

On Saturday, the Reisterstown FedEx worker claimed the top prize in the Mayor's Billie Holiday Vocal Competition, an annual event in which singers conjure the spirit of the late jazz legend whom Baltimore claims as its own.

This is the 16th year of the tribute, and the first where it was held as part of Artscape. The winners took home cash prizes, as much as $2,500, and earned a chance to sing for the festival crowd.

Judges have said they aren't necessarily looking for clones of Holiday - just talent.

Waiting behind the stage yesterday for her chance to perform, Poole said she wasn't sure she had what it took.

"For the last two years I waited till the last day to enter and then changed my mind," she said. "'Cause I was like, 'I'll never win that.'"

In her spare time, Poole sings with a band, hamming up Top 40 classics such as "I Will Survive" and "We Are Family" for weddings and bar mitzvahs. But for the contest, she tapped into her inner Billie Holiday.

"It's just good music," she said. "That's what it's all about."

Although the afternoon sun was hot, Ruby Mills of Baltimore stayed cool at Artscape with the help of a shade tree, a black straw hat and, possibly, Poole's rendition of "At Last."

"She's doing a great job with this song," said Mills, who said she travels to Newport, R.I., and Monterey, Calif., for the big jazz festivals. "She's wonderful."

Sandra Spears of Northwest Baltimore, who knows a thing or two about Holiday's oeuvre, sat on a terrace, nodding her head as Pikesville's Bernard Roberson, the People's Choice Award winner, performed the Holiday classic "God Bless the Child." Spears took the top prize at the contest in 1996 and since then has performed the jazz singer's music at area reviews.

"Even if I don't do anything else at Artscape, I make time for this," Spears said. "The vocalists need support."

Spears said that in addition to giving her the chance to strut her stuff in front of a crowd, winning the Holiday competition opened doors for her. Most of the prize-winners who took the stage yesterday hoped for the same thing.

Not Roberson, though. The ringer for Randy Jackson, a judge on American Idol, only entered the contest to see if he still had his singing mojo.

The pastor at New Jerusalem Christian Church in Northeast Baltimore had logged in plenty of hymn time with the church choir in his younger years. But this secular music, particularly jazz, was new - and a bit scary.

"I hadn't performed in front of people and I'm, you know, certainly no jazz purist," Roberson said after his two-song set. "It was kind of intimidating. But I just wanted to do it for fun."

For the handful of people gathered for the show, the first thing on the lineup for the festival's closing day, it must have seemed like a private show.

Roberson felt the concert vibe a bit more during Saturday's competition at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The last time the pastor was there, he had an audience seat while crooner Johnny Mathis performed.

"I was like, 'Ooooh, boy,' he said. "'I'm on stage right where Johnny Mathis was.'"

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