The late Ella Fitzgerald remains one of the most high-profile and beloved jazz and pop singers in history, selling more than 40,000 records, winning 13 Grammy Awards as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and even appearing on a postage stamp in 2007, celebrating the 90th anniversary of her birth. In addition, she’s popularly known as “The First Lady of Song,” a title that’s hardly thrown around.
So shouldn’t it be more than a little intimidating for a vocalist to produce and sing a show full of Ella’s songs?
“Absolutely,” says Cynthia Simmons with a laugh. “But, you know, I went into it with the same mindset I had with the Nina Simone show, which I did back in March of last year. I’m not Ella Fitzgerald. I’m not going to sound like Ella Fitzgerald. But I’m going to give the best tribute I can to a musical phenomenon, somebody who had a fifty-year-plus career in music, who kept going even after major illnesses. She was awesome, I love her, and I’m going to give her my best possible tribute.”
That five-decade career began for Fitzgerald in 1934, when she won an amateur-night contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Four years later, she had her first No. 1 hit, “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” which she recorded with Chick Webb’s big band. Throughout the 1930s, she worked extensively with both Webb and the Benny Goodman Orchestra, as well as with her own band. Then, in the mid-1940s, during a stint on the road withDizzy Gillespie, she began scat singing during a stint on the road with Dizzy Gillespie. That wordless vocal style soon became a major element in her music.
“I think my biggest challenge was to do an Ella show when I’m not a scatter,” says Simmons. “A lot of people compare my voice to hers, but I don’t scat. I’m working on it, though.”
In the 1950s, Fitzgerald broke into the mainstream in a big way, recording a number of big-selling albums as a solo performer. She was a double winner at the very first Grammy Awards event, in 1958, scoring Best Individual Jazz Performance honors for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book and Best Female Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book. For the next three decades, she also toured extensively and was a regular guest star on national television, which is where Cynthia Simmons first encountered her.
“I remember being a kid and seeing her on variety shows,” Simmons recalls. “She was this very elegant older lady, just standing there and singing, and as I got older, I just kept watching her age in front of the world, still doing her music. It was one of those things that just struck me. I always thought, `Oh, yeah, Ella Fitzgerald. She sang jazz.’
“The very first show I did for the Jazz Hall was three or four years ago,” she adds. “It was two other gentlemen and me, and I spotlighted Ella in my part. So I’ve been performing her songs for my entire jazz career.”
For Sunday’s Jazz Depot show, which she’s titled Cyn Sings Ella: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Simmons will be backed by a trio of musicians very familiar to area jazz fans: Frank Brown on Guitar, Dean Demerritt on bass, Mike Moore on trumpet and Wade Robertson on drums. She also plans to have another well-known Jazz Depot performer, Darell Christopher, on hand to recreate a few of the famous duets Fitzgerald did with Louis Armstrong.
And along with all the music, Simmons says that she’ll present a few biographical facts about Ella that will help the audience see her as a person in addition to a great performer.
Tickets can be purchased at the Depot, from www.myticketoffice.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-928-JAZZ. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fameis a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through the preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.