Being There: Lady E live at the VMFA on Wednesday, May 10


At the Wednesday night jazz session at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Ethel Barnett-Johnson, a.k.a. Lady E, a.k.a. the "Duchess of Jazz," is holding court. But the court isn’t holding her.

“Where is she?” asks videographer Clark Andrew. Her warm, gravelly tones are booming from the speakers, the stage is crowded with musicians, but she is nowhere to be seen.

During two, high-energy sets, she slides through the whirling dancers at the front and navigates through the tables all the way to the back of the standing room crowd, occasionally sitting down to visit with fans while various members of the band solo. One minute she is a silhouetted headful of curls in the distant crowd, the next cheerfully at your elbow, blasting out her catchphrase: “Let me hear you scream!”

The crowd at Lady E's show inside VMFA. - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • The crowd at Lady E's show inside VMFA.

At age 80, Barnett-Johnson has been singing her whole life and still dresses like Tina Turner, tonight in both leopard print and sequined mini dress. She’s been a fixture on the local music scene for decades.

The VMFA show went on a bit past the 8 p.m. close, with people dancing until the final notes.

“You should have told me what time it was,” Lady E said with a big smile. “Shame on you!”

  • Peter McElhinney

Correction: Barnett-Johnson was shown in a photo of James Plunky Branch's book, but she did not perform onstage with him.