Singer Donna Woodall swings between jazz and pop with aplomb

All photos courtesy Donna Woodall. 

Though she was born in St. Louis, she’s lived in Milwaukee since 7th grade, so jazz singer Donna Woodall feels deep musical and cultural roots here, considers this home. She grew into a radiant, apple-cheeked purveyor of song who swings like ripe apples on a wind-blown tree. She’s since parachuted far from the tree, a full-fledged artist, perhaps the most active and accomplished female jazz singer working in Milwaukee.

She’ll be honored with a concert at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts on April 21:

“I attribute my specific love of jazz music to my grandfather, who encouraged me to ‘sit and listen’ to swinging divas, and to my mother, Jeanne Woodall, who performed in Milwaukee jazz circles, leaving behind a legacy of song after her passing in 2011,” she explains. Donna diversified her performing skills, studying music, dance, and theater at UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison. Yet, “my mother was my greatest voice teacher — she was a walking encyclopedia of jazz songs and styles.”

Her deepening knowledge, innate musicality and affable personality insinuated her into popular local jazz bands like Eddie Butts, and soon Streetlife, the dynamite jazz-fusion band led by Warren Wiegratz, which played for Milwaukee Bucks crowds for years. So, Woodall can project big, but also charm you with a tender ballad, like “Summertime.” Yet the modal vamp inserted by pianist Theo Merriweather casts a fresh shadow of tension across the languid Gershwin song. This lends strong undercurrents of meaning to a song from a “folk-opera” (Porgy and Bess) about Southern Blacks enduring the early Jim Crow era which, out of context, “Summertime” gauzes over.

Donna Woodall performs recently with keyboardist Theo Merriweather.

A measure of Woodall’s regard among the region’s jazz musicians is that Madison-based Hanah Jon Taylor, arguably the state’s premiere jazz saxophonist, has recently visited Milwaukee twice to perform alongside Woodall, at Caroline’s and St. Kate’s nightclub.

Part of that regard surely has to do with her melted-carmel voice and elastic phrasing, reflecting key influences like Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole and Cassandra Wilson. There’s also Woodall’s expansive repertoire, which includes personalizing atypical-to-jazz pop music songs, including Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” (in a jazzy minor-ish key), and even improbably, The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” — about a romantic relationship in its desperate last hours.

What makes a non-jazz song work for her? “The song should have some connection to my life experiences and great lyrics,” she says. “I was an English teacher for years, so the words and meaning of a song are important!” It should also be pliable enough to “be interpreted numerous ways.” It should also have “universal themes, and a sense of nostalgia to which an audience can relate.”

So, they’re usually songs with a deep history, which all the above do. She’s also had an evocative original song, “Fireworks,” accepted by NPR’s Tiny Desk contest.

For all that, she’s also enabled by a close-knit band which, at the Wilson Center, will include pianist-keyboardist Joe Kral, guitarist Bob Monagle, bassist Ethan Bender (her husband), and drummer Jeno Somali.


At Woodall’s recent St. Kate hotel nightclub gig, Kral consistently added drive and textural power with a Fender Rhodes keyboard setting, echoing the startling fluency of Herbie Hancock, who made the Fender Rhodes a propulsive and atmospheric alternative to acoustic piano in his Mwandishi and Headhunters funk-fusion bands.

Meanwhile, Taylor again guest-performed with Woodall, deftly blending tenor sax, flute and wind synthesizer, sometimes in the same song. The band geared up a punchy drive to “Route 66,” inspired by Nat King Cole’s version, the singer explained. It proved that Woodall, whom I first encountered performing an enchanting holiday song concert, can kick a little tail when she wants to.

She further deepened her jazz bonafides with a wrenchingly eloquent interpretation of Billie Holiday’s autobiographical “God Bless the Child.” Woodall, who taught middle school English for 30 years, enlightened the crowd by explaining that in her biography Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday said the song inspired by an argument over money between Holiday and her mother when the daughter was a young struggling performer.

Rich relations may give you a crust of bread and such/ you can help yourself, but don’t take too much/ Momma may have, and papa may have/ but God bless the child, God bless the child, whose got his own, whose got his own. 1.

The band dug deep into the song’s tough but tender emotional core. It’s how memories of a hard lifetime get etched in the soul, which bleeds out to anyone who heard Holiday sing it. That evening, we felt Holiday’s blood bleeding from Donna Woodall.


This article was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express:

1 “God Bless the Child” was written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr. in 1939. The song won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, and was chosen as a “song of the century” by The Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Native American photography reveals indigenous culture, politics at MAM

Martine Gutierrez, “Queer Rage, Imagine Life-Size, and I’m Tyra.” Inkjet print, 2018

Enter “Native America: In Translation” and your eyes and mind open through a revelatory aperture into Indigenous culture of the Americas. The exhibit title may mean various things: translating ingrained perceptions to understand the underexposed art, life, values and sensibility of Native artists to a broader public. Also, it reveals how high-quality, large-scale photography has become an important medium, besides those more associated with Native folk culture. Native artists wield such contemporary art technology as deftly, and often as pointedly, as their forebears did bow and arrow.

Curator Wendy Red Star notes the political implications: “The ultimate form of decolonization is through how Native languages form a view of the world. These artists provide sharp perceptions, rooted in their cultures.”

The cumulative effect is prodigious and nourishing, like an advancing thundercloud over a parched land, addressing decolonization and cultural enlightening of desiccated racist perceptions that once led to dehumanization and genocide of countless tribes. One artist, Duane Linklater, is explicit in a series of photos of a sculpted bust of the nation’s celebrated father, George Washington, which references the story of how he ordered troops to slaughter an Iroquois tribe in occupation efforts in 1779.

Most of the work serves strong aesthetic and well as symbolic or narrative values. For example, perhaps the edgiest artist is Martine Gutierrez. Queer Rage, Imagine Life-Size, and I’m Tyra shows an extravagantly adorned lounging woman seated in a dazzlingly colorful, almost magic-realism tableaux that asserts her identity—and her rage in the form of a Black Panther inserted collage-style—as endemic to this scene of natural American bounty. Gutierrez, a tall, striking trans woman, is the model in most of a series of hypothetical slick fashion magazine layouts, because she believes she cannot be hired as a model in such mainstream magazines.

Rebecca Belmore also celebrates her culture while delineating some of its rude limits in American society. She honors a tribe Matriarch in a large silhouette portrait of a woman posing in a ravishingly sumptuous gown bedecked with crimson roses.

Rebecca Belmore, “Matriarch,” inkjet print, 2018

By contrast, with Keeper, in black and white, Belmore shows a lowly laborer woman scrubbing the mud off a large outdoor patio, likely owned by a wealthy employer, her clothes caked in mud. Her posture, semi-prone sideways on one hip, recalls the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s famous pathos-laden painting Christina’s World. Wyeth’s subject, a neighbor of his, was physically challenged and often traveled around her home by crawling. Belmore’s groundskeeper has normal laborer’s abilities, though she’s reduced, like Christina, but by demeaning work. Yet Belmore lends the woman dignity by setting her in the foreground of an elegant composition, with a deep perspective on the concrete floor, and its brickwork pattern receding into a cloudy distance.

Another artist, who works brilliantly in black-and-white only, is the Ecuadorian Native named Koyoltzintli. Her aim is far wider than the more pointedly political. She’s aiming for the moon, by poetically inquiring about the relationship between humans and our most seemingly lifeless environmental form: rocks, boulders, and large rock masses, with a sense of wit and wonder.

I don’t recall another artist making this kind of conceptual connection which, at a glance, seems to incongruously mate the living form and the seemingly static one. Yet, in black-and-white, her nude models, ingeniously implanted into the scenes, nearly acquire the stone-like quality of the rock masses they lounge on, somewhat like surreal Odalisques, on the verge of melting into stone.

Koyoltzintli, “Gathering Roots Up in the Sky,”  inkjet print,  2019

For example, the two women at the top and the bottom of the large vertical cavity in “Gathering Roots Up in the Sky,” seem like oddly elegant rock formations courtesy of the collective artistry of wind, water, and sand, crafted laboriously over perhaps millennia. Yet there’s no trace of sky visible – unless the blackness within the large cavity is the night. “Koyo,” as she is nicknamed, has a knack for enigmatic titles.

An even more extravagantly beautiful image is her “Misunderstanding of Raven,” In a note to the reviewer, the artist explains the title only by saying it refers to the name of the model. So apparently the same model (with time-lapse trickery?) assumes two separate poses. Both women, adorned only with the wind, are perched, in tantalizingly faint abstraction, atop a fascinatingly textured rock mass, like sirens singing to the sky, luring the ever-vulnerable winged god Icarus (or the Native American equivalent thereof) away from the sun to a different, yet possibly as fateful, destiny. As for “misunderstanding,” let your imagination catch Koyo’s windblown drift. “Misunderstanding” may even lead to surprising insight.

For all that, the rock formation below, which comprises most of the composition, is a sinuously organic maze. It’s a rare instance of “dumb” rocks almost upstaging nude models. In all of Koyo’s works here, one is forced to reconsider the possibility of some manner of life contained, more than figuratively, in the myriad of evocative rock forms that inhabit the planet. To perhaps lean down to listen to a rock sometime. Is that faint, earthy rumbling in the distance, or right at my foot? And to reconsider humanity’s primal and current relationship to such humble, if sometimes mountainous, forms. 1

Another artist with seemingly modest yet expansive vision is Kimowan Metchewais, who offers a photo sequence of hands entering the composition from the right, illustrating words in “hand language” of his tribe, perhaps derived from covert signaling of guerrilla-style Native American fighters during the 19th century.

Kimowan Metchewais (Cold Lake First Nations, 1963–2011), “Indian Handsign,” Dye diffusion transfer print, 1997. 

The splayed fingers of “Flight” (image at top) deftly mimic a bird’s soaring wings, but the whole sequence of images also suggest, for this viewer (forgive one more Western art allusion), variations on the detail of the Creator’s outstretched hand in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Such is the evocative power of much good art.


Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk), “Bella Falcon,” from the series “Strong Unrelenting Spirits,” . Inkjet print, glass beads, rhinestones, shell, thread, 2023

The show also includes three gorgeous portraits of family members of Eau Claire-based artist Tom Jones, and work by Nalikutaar Jacqueline Cleveland, Guadalupe Maravilla, Alan Michelson, and Marianne Nicolson. All 10 artists represent various Native nations and affiliations from North America, including Cold Lake First Nations, Ho-Chunk Nation, Lac Seul First Nation, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nations, Native Village of Kwinhagak Tribal Government, and Six Nations of the Grand River.

Curator Wendy Red Star is an Apsáalooke artist whose work was included in the Museum’s recent exhibition On Repeat: Serial Photography.

In sum, these photographers launch artful arrows of such varied arches that their multi-circled, multi-colored target stands like a full quiver – cut open wide for inspection and revelation – perhaps like a signifying Native American sculpture itself.


This review was originally published in Shepherd Express: