Jazz Divas Resurrected

Michelle Johnson

This year marks 100 years since Ella Fitzgerald entered the world, and it also happens to be the year Michelle Johnson brings Strictly Taboo—a revue of the women of jazz featuring singers, a 17-piece big band and dancing—to The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz venue. “I’m very blessed that The Smith Center has given me a platform to physically premiere these new shows that have been in my head for years,” says Johnson.

Locally known as the First Lady of Jazz, Johnson has been a prominent figure in Las Vegas’ live events and entertainment industry. For 22 years, she has performed and/or recorded with celebrity musicians—such as Gladys Knight, Paul McCartney, Sheena Easton and Barbra Streisand. Between running the company she founded, Diva Las Vegas Productions, and mentoring young artists, writing books, performing and rehearsing, Johnson sat down with Vegas Seven to talk about her music career beginnings, her upcoming show at Cabaret Jazz and the meaning of “taboo.”

I see from your Instagram account that you’ve traveled a lot. Does your music career take you afar, or is that just a hobby?

When I was [going to school] in Egypt, I learned French, so I speak French and Arabic. I was lucky enough to travel to Paris a few times. [My] school [was] unlike a school in the States, where, let’s say, you’re in Reno and you’re going to compete with a high school in Las Vegas. When you live overseas, the schools compete internationally. For example, we would go to Athens for a speech and debate tournament, or we’d compete in London against all the other international schools [in a] track meet. I was really lucky that I got exposed to many, many countries all over the world. And as a result of those visits, I also got exposed to the music.

How do you mentor young entertainers?

That’s kind of ongoing. It happens in my life naturally. I happen to also work at Apple on top of everything else, because I’m not busy enough. That’s my other passion … I love working there. So I teach people how to use their devices: their phones, their iPads, their Macs. A lot of people in that store are young people. So some of my [connections] with young people in the arts happen organically because I work at Apple. We encourage them, show them the technology that we have and how it can help them to pursue their goals.

You’re bringing Strictly Taboo to The Smith Center. Have you performed the show before?

This show is being launched and premiered at The Smith Center. … It’ll probably be different every time we do it because I like to use different singers as my guests, and different big-band charts. I’ve sung with big bands before, but I’ve never been in charge of the entire production. [This is the first time I will] run and produce [the show] from zero to a hundred. I have a fantastic musical director, Joe Escriba, so I am in good hands.

How many singers are on the bill?

We have seven female singers including myself, and we’re covering a range of material: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and so many more. The singers are Elyse Branch, Avana Christie, Genevieve Dew, Mary O, Naomi Mauro and Kellie Wright … all incredible vocalists.

Tell me about how you’re going to tell the stories behind the singers you’re featuring.

[The cast members] are able to tell you a little bit about [the artists] and sing their songs and present something that will move you—make you remember how they’re all different.

Because I think when it comes to jazz singers, a lot of people think that Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington are all the same person when they hear the name in passing. Unless you’re a musician and you know that signature sound, they all get lumped together. That’s not fair to them and their stories because they’re all so different.

What about this show is taboo?

One of the descriptions of the show is that it’s a salacious revue. That means that you’re going to be finding out things that you had no idea happened to these ladies.

“Taboo” is really more a throwback to what this would be if this show was being done in, let’s say, 1940. Because even though we’re in 2017, where—let’s face it—nothing’s really taboo anymore, [these musicians] would have been [taboo] at the time. That’s the reason why [such] stories are not known, because back in the ’40s and ’50s, [they] would’ve been considered scandalous.

I just want to bring some of them to light, and that’s why we’re not just doing the generic “she was born in such and such and died in such and such, and here was her greatest hit,” because that’s boring. You can look that up on Wikipedia. … We’re getting into the backstory of why these women were fabulous and why they had such emotion in their voices.

Strictly Taboo

July 15, $22–$40, Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center, thesmithcenter.com

Vegas Seven