#939: The Jazz Singer

June 11th, 2018

We’re sitting on a couch. I’m sipping tea. The walls are filled with art and the house pet is an app-controlled R2D2.

The jazz singer is talking about her clothes. 

She has pale skin, blue eyes, ruby lips, black hair that’s curly bordering on frantic. A thin silver chain dangles from a small skull on her right ear. Her left earring’s a small hoop. Black bandanna around her neck.

Brook Umbrell — “Brooke without the E, umbrella without the A,” she jokes — said she’s a jeans-and-T-shirt sort of woman most days, and this appears to be most days. Her black T says “Sweet and Toxic,” but those aren’t the clothes she’s talking about.

She’s talking about the clothes she wears as Brooklyn Britches, songstress head of The Whispers. She’s talking about vintage panties, nipple-covering pasties, fringy Gatsby affairs and the other outfitting she took with her when she made the jump from burlesque dancer to chanteuse.

“I realized after a while that it was a very important way for me and for a lot of women to express our sexuality in an environment that is safe, powerful and comfortable. To be on stage and wear whatever you want — as much as you want or as little as you want — is a very, very powerful thing. It feels…”

Here she trailed off, just for a moment. We’re sitting on a couch. I’m sipping tea. R2D2 is saying nothing.

She glanced back up and continued.

“I have a sexual assault in my background,” she said. “I felt like there were so many things in life that were saying ‘Your body doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to this other person, this other person and everybody else that’s out there.’ In doing something like burlesque, you realize ‘Oh no, it’s mine. I can do what I want with it. I can wear what I want. I can show myself in whatever light that I want.’

“For me, in a lot of the costuming that I have, it is very showy. It is very like you know, high-waisted underwear and maybe a bra or some pasties. Sometimes I’ll just wear a fringy thing with some pasties on. Because I can. Because I think it’s important for women to express themselves in a way that is sexual but also doesn’t say ‘I’m inviting you to come into my space.’ It’s saying ‘I will allow who I want when I want to come into my space.’”

You can google the videos. You can see Brooklyn sing. You can see her belt jazz standards while glammed to the nines, tens, elevens, or maybe close her eyes and shimmy to swanked-up covers of Radiohead, Erykah Badu or the thus far one-hitter who did “Ex’s and Oh’s.”

Brook Umbrell is 38. She decided to start singing at 34 or 35 — she can’t recall.

“It wasn’t like I had just gotten out of high school doing choir kind of stuff and my voice was prepared,” she said. “It was all kind of rugged whatever was coming out.”

Vocal lessons quickly turned into an offer to sing backup for the teacher’s band. From when she was a kid in Ohio, there was just always music in her life.

“My grandfather was a preacher, my uncle was a preacher,” Umbrell said. “Grew up in the Baptist church. My mom played piano. In the Baptist church where we went, there were no other instruments aside from piano. So most of it was acapella, a lot of harmonies. So I grew up hearing all of that, hearing the harmonies, hearing how the sounds went together and it made sense to me. A lot of my family’s from the South, so there’s a lot of banjos and guitars and sitting around a bonfire and kind of making our own fun. And I grew up in the country so it was again that. Not just with the church stuff. My friends all played guitar and we sang. It’s something that I kind of was just doing.”

Umbrell moved to Chicago in 2011.

“I had gone through a breakup, started dating somebody else who suggested ‘You should do something for yourself’ — I think I was probably just hanging around too much to be honest,” she said, laughing.

After a trip with friends to see Michelle L’amour’s troupe at the now-closed burlesque venue The Everleigh Social Club, Umbrell decided to sign up for classes.

“My ex was like ‘Oh. So that’s what you’re going to do,’” Umbrell said, putting an arched eyebrow and disgust-crinkled nose into the impression. “I think she thought I was going to take needle point or a sewing class or clay or something like that.”

The relationship didn’t last. The burlesque did.

After a few years of classes, she decided to take to the stage for the first time in 2014. Prepping for her first performance, Umbrell couldn’t find music she liked. So she decided to sing it herself, disrobing for the crowd as she belted a swing-infused version of Yiddish-theater-turned-Andrews-Sisters classic “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.”

Burlesque felt a fit, but the performances started to stress her out, giving her near panicked bouts of stage fright before each show. It wasn’t the nudity; it was the perfectionism. If she flubs a lyric or blanks on a word as a singer, Brooklyn Britches can give a glance to her co-Whispers NumbChuck on guitar and Just Martin on upright bass so they know to vamp and improv to cover the gaffe. If she forgets a choreographed move, she’s on her own in the wrong position in the wrong place on stage.

She thought she could be an OK singing dancer or a good singer. The choice was simple.

The gig as vocal coach Katie Kaden’s backup singer put her in touch with a new community — musicians, not the burlesque performers she spent the last few years with. Friends of friends of friends and chance run-ins with NumbChuck and Just Martin birthed The Whispers.

The combination of well-loved standards, identifiable modern songs done with “a swanky twist” and the portability of a three-person band has given The Whispers regular gigs at bars across the city. The Drifter under the Green Door Tavern. Tiny Tapp on the Riverwalk. Sunday brunch at The Dearborn.

It’s not always been easy. And venues aren’t always obliging when a woman’s calling the shots.

“I’m a woman who runs a band with two men who are very masculine men. Sometimes that’s a challenge. Just being a woman in the world can be a challenge. I got offered a job, gave them a bid, they told me it was too high — they could only offer me so much money. One of my friends called me up and said ‘Hey, I need a singer for this thing.’ It was the same gig that I had been offered. He got offered $250 more. More than their top bid. More than ‘That’s the top price we can pay.’”

But it’s happening. The Whispers are playing. They’re making money. She’s still working as a salon esthetician, but the day job is taking less prominence in her economics. She co-produces a live-band burlesque show with Eva la Feva. She plays at circus shows for Aloft Loft.

“I’m working with drag kings and queens. I’m working with burlesque dancers and tightrope walkers and aerial artists and strongmen and all these amazing people that are just wonderful to watch,” she said. “But also, I’m working for super-cool people, really great venues, people that I adore.”

Umbrell’s wife comes in while we’re talking. She smiles at me and later shows me how R2D2 runs. From the beginning, Umbrell knew this one was someone who got her.

“When we met, I told her I did burlesque and she said, ‘That’s so badass!’” Umbrell said, flashing a smile.

Meet The Whispers

Meet a woman breaking into breakdancing

And one whose muse also wears fancy lingerie

And one whose designs run all-black

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You are currently reading #939: The Jazz Singer by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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