Great voices making great jazz, in the tradition of Ella.
Celebrating the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook
Great voices making great jazz, in the tradition of Ella.
The great Ella Fitzgerald was born nearly 100 years ago. During her lengthy career, she not only invented the role of the jazz vocalist, but she converted thousands of Americans into jazz fans. With her joyful approach to the music of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and Hollywood, Ella created renditions of familiar songs that have long outlasted the popularity of the originals. Vocalists Kenny Washington, Bobbe Norris, and special guest and SJW alumna Alex Brandenburg have all been under Ella’s influence, and they pay tribute to Ella’s repertoire, sense of swing, and improvisational mastery in this special performance. Bay Area piano master Larry Dunlap and woodwind virtuoso Noel Jewkes will help make this concert a fitting tribute to the great music of this amazing legendary singer.
Kenny Washington, Bobbe Norris, Alex Brandenburg, vocals
Noel Jewkes, saxophone
Larry Dunlap, piano
John Wiitala, bass
Leon Joyce, drums
George & Luisa Miller
Jazz lovers tend to be a passionate and fractious lot, given to extended and sometimes bitter arguments over the merits of various players and the legitimacy of stylistic developments. But you’d be hard pressed to find any jazz fan who disputes Ella Fitzgerald’s title as the First Lady of Song. Even if one’s taste runs more toward Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, or Dinah Washington, Ella suffers not a whit in comparison to her fellow vocal legends.
Her rhythmic agility and sense of swing were unmatched. Her gorgeous, clear voice, tremendous range, and perfect diction gave her one of jazz’s most impressive instruments. And her early rise to fame with the Chick Webb Orchestra in the mid-1930s put her in the ideal position to shape the jazz repertoire by ushering the era’s best pop songs into the jazz canon. In Ted Gioia’s incisive book The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire he argues that Fitzgerald’s primary role in assembling the American Songbook — the vast collection of enduring songs gleaned largely from Broadway shows, Tin Pan Alley, and Hollywood films from the 1920-50s — was rivaled only by Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis.
Today’s program features a multi-generational cast of jazz vocalists reveling in the songs that Fitzgerald indelibly stamped with her vivacious musicality. At 19, Alex Brandenburg is cast in evening’s ingénue role. An undergrad at the University of Miami who describes her 2014 experience at the Stanford Jazz Workshop studying in the vocal program with Madeline Eastman and Dena DeRose as a formative experience, she cites Fitzgerald as her gateway to jazz.
“When I was in the 8th grade I had been playing piano in my middle school jazz band and not really digging in,” says Brandenburg, who grew up in Simi Valley. “Then I heard Ella and it hit me how much I like it. There was this live recording of her singing ‘Misty’ with Oscar Peterson and I would play that over and over. I fell in love with swing music through her.”
New Orleans-raised and Oakland-based vocalist Kenny Washington is a familiar presence at the Festival and, much like Fitzgerald, is universally revered by his peers (and also like Ella, is averse to blowing his own horn). Featured at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Wynton Marsalis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, Washington has recorded with vibes master Joe Locke, earned a Grammy Award with the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, and has made a series of brilliant albums with saxophonist/arranger Michael O’Neill. Supremely soulful, he’s one of the great scat singers, and not surprisingly he says his “top three influences are Ella, Sarah Vaughan,and Mel Tormé.”
Bobbe Norris, who grew up in Marin, is the concert’s well-traveled veteran. Her jazz education took place in afterhour San Francisco joints like Jimbo’s Bop City, where she absorbed music sitting in with local players and visiting jazz stars. She started working professionally at 17, and while her parents weren’t keen on her dating, they had no problem with her staying out all night to sing. A stint at the Purple Onion in North Beach, working opposite the comedians like Smothers Brothers and Phyllis Diller, put her on the entertainment map, and before long she heard the call of New York.
Norris eventually signed to Columbia, recruited by legendary talent scout and producer John Hammond. Given the choice between recording a jazz record in a one-album deal or trying to hit it big with a pop session, Norris went the pop route and made The Beginning in 1966. On each subsequent recording she moved further and further away from jazz. It wasn’t until she returned to the Bay Area and met pianist Larry Dunlap that she got back to her musical roots.
An ace accompanist who has performed widely with vocal stars such as Mark Murphy, Ernestine Anderson, Joe Williams, and Dame Cleo Laine, Dunlap and Norris have recorded several critically-hailed albums together. She’s also featured on projects like You and the Night and the Music, a session for Sony Japan with an all-star rhythm section of Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, and Ben Riley. Norris heard Fitzgerald first-hand at a particularly formative age, and the experience left a still-vivid impression. “I saw her at the Venetian Room at the Fairmont when I was pretty young, before I moved to New York,” she says. “As a teenager I listened to all those songbook albums, those were wonderful, beautiful recordings. What a voice!”
Born into dire poverty, Fitzgerald was basically surviving on the streets of Harlem as a teenager when she won an Apollo Theater amateur night in 1934. Only 17 when she joined Chick Webb’s powerful big band, Ella became a star with her hit 1938 recording “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” maintaining her popularity with a succession of novelty songs. By 1941 she had gone solo, scoring numerous hits for Decca. But it was her exposure to modern jazz on Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tours in the mid-40s that allowed her to develop her dazzling scat singing.
Ella’s enduring popularity and status as a jazz icon stems from her work with Granz, who surrounded her with top flight jazz talent on small group sessions, and launched her thematic series devoted exclusively to the work of the songwriters Porter, Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Kern, Ellington, Arlen, and Mercer. More than any other group of recordings, they gave shape to the concept of the American Songbook, and it’s Ella’s contribution to this cultural treasure that we celebrate today.
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