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.
Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame Presents Memorial Day Salute to Vets:
Produced by Joe Wilkinson
Anyone who can produce a show like Monday’s Salute To Veterans, featuring a large roster of vocalists and instrumentalists, deserves kudos for getting it all together and out onto the Jazz Depot stage. If that person is actually performing as well as producing, the feat is still more impressive.
But if the producer-performer recently celebrated his 90th birthday, it’s not just impressive – it’s pretty much unparalleled.
This year, pianist-vocalist-producer – and nonagenarian – Joe Wilkinson is once again at the helm for what has become a Jazz Depot tradition: the Salute to Veterans Memorial Day concert emphasizing patriotic and World War II-era music that’s free to any member or former member of the United States Armed Services. And, as has been the case in the past, he’ll also play some piano and sing a number or two – although, he says, he’s going to keep the latter to a minimum this time around.
“Our annual Memorial Day concert is a salute to our veterans, and a way to thank them for their service,” said Jason McIntosh, Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame CEO. “And everyone loves working with Joe–ninety years old and still going strong. It’s inspiring that this WWII vet is still producing and directing shows. He represents the Greatest Generation well.”
“Well, my voice is growing old, just like my body, and when I listen to it, I’m beginning not to be happy with what I hear,” explains Wilkinson. “So although I’m probably going to sing at least one tune, just for fun, I’ve got Darell Christopher doing what I did last year, which is `Kalamazoo’ and `Chattanooga Choo Choo.'”
Except for Jazz Depot favorite Christopher and singer Amanda Mansheim, the vocalists on the program were all aboard for last year’s Salute to Veterans. They include Angie Cockrell, Larry Cochran, Pam Van Dyke Crosby, Emily Chappell, and Sue Warwick.
“Amanda and I did some things together three or four years ago, and then she was expecting another child and it was time to get off the stage for a while,” notes Wilkinson. “After that, she had some throat problems. But she’s back and running. In fact, she’ll be singing on `Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.’ We’re going to do that with a trio of girls, kind of like the Andrews Sisters. Angie will handle the melody, Sue will do the alto work, and Amanda’s doing the soprano part– and she’s an opera singer, so she’ll get there.
“I’ve got Emily, who sang `I’ll Never Smile Again’ last year, doing that one again, and I’ve also gotten her to do `Indian Summer.’ Those are two of my all-time favorites.”
Also returning from last year – in addition to emcee John Wooley, of Public Radio Tulsa’s Swing on This program – are trumpeter Mike Bennett and bassist Jordan Hehl, joining new pianists Tim Shadley and Larry Mitchell, along with Wilkinson himself.
“Tim will be our main piano man,” says Wilkinson. “His primary instrument is trombone, but he’s taken a real hold on piano, and I mean he really works that sucker. Larry Mitchell worked with us at Guthrie Green last year, and he’s a good pianist. He fits the bill real well. I’m probably going to do a minimum amount of playing, but I do have my favorites.
“Mike Bennett is great to have, because you’ve got somebody carrying the load, you know,” he adds. “And he certainly can. He’s the best.”
Sue Warwick, says Wilkinson, is the person responsible for the group that’s scheduled to begin this year’s event.
“We were kind of looking for a new approach for kicking the thing off, and Sue brought this to us. It’s a group called the Talk of Tulsa, a chorus, and they’ve been very successful in competitions. There’ll be at least 20 people up there singing the National Anthem in a cappella harmony, and it could be just outstanding.”
Oklahoma Representatives Eric Proctor and Ken Walker, both of Tulsa, along with representatives of the Honor Flight program are expected to be on hand. The organization sends World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. for a tour – recently, in fact, Wilkinson himself took the trip.
“It was really great. Whenever we’d come into a crowd, getting off at the airport and everything, there would be all these people standing there and saying, `Thank you so much for what you did.’ I’m thinking, `Man, when I was a kid in the South Pacific, I didn’t realize anybody was going to thank me for my service.’ That’s the last thing I expected,” he concludes with a laugh.
The Salute to Veterans is set to begin at 5:00 p.m. on Memorial Day – Monday, May 26 – at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street.
Tickets can be purchased at the Depot, from http://www.myticketoffice.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. 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.
All veterans of the Armed Services will be admitted for free.
The show is a part of the Jazz Hall’s 2014 Spring Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is 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.
Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame
Trumpeter and vocalist Jeff Shadley has dubbed the band assembled for Thursday’s benefit show the Disaster Relief Orchestra.
That name aptly describes his and the group’s mission, which is to aid victims of the recent Oklahoma tornadoes by raising money for the Tulsa Chapter of the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. But area jazz fans who know their players could just as easily give the aggregation another title: the A Team.
“I’ll have a lot of the usual guys who work with me, including Victor Anderson on saxophone and Dave Johnson on trumpet,” says Shadley. “Mike Bennett is also coming in to play trumpet, Steve Ham to play trombone, Mike Cameron on tenor sax, and I’ll have a couple of [NSU Jazz Studies director] Tommy Poole’s students in there, too, who’re both really good.
“I’ve got two great pianists, Chuck Gardner and Scott McQuade, who’ll be trading off throughout the show. And there’s a tremendous lead trombone player named Zac Lee who’s coming in from Oklahoma City to play with us. I offered to at least give him gas money, and he wouldn’t even take that.“
All of the musicians are donating their services, as are Tulsa media figures Julie Chin and Michele Lowry, the emcees for the evening, and vocalists Cindy Cain, Pam Van Dyke Crosby, Sarah Maud, Rebecca Ungerman, Ruby Shadley, and Shadley himself, the featured singers at Thursday’s event.
“Ruby, my daughter, also has a quartet that will sing a couple of a cappella songs,” notes Shadley. “They’re kind of a cross between jazz and barbershop. They have tenor, bass, baritone, and alto [voices], like barbershop, but they go a little bit beyond that.”
In addition to the vocal numbers, he adds, the band itself will be showcased on several other tunes throughout the course of the evening, including a couple featuring Mike Bennett’s trumpet work.
“We’ll go from seven until eight p.m. with a combo, so people will be able to see and hear their favorite players in a small-combo setting,” says Shadley. “Then we’ll switch to the big band and go from eight until ten.”
Many, if not most, of the musicians and vocalists assembled for the all-star program have headlined their own shows, at the Jazz Depot and elsewhere. Pam Van Dyke Crosby, for instance, top-lined a well-received show last month to debut her new CD, Jazz on a Summer’s Night – Late, and pianist Gardner, along with his vocalist wife Sandy, has the latest in a long series of Jazz Depot shows scheduled for June 23. Shadley himself is a veteran Tulsa musician who was doing Jazz Hall of Fame shows even before the organization’s 2007 move from the Greenwood Cultural Center to the Jazz Depot.
“On YouTube, there’s a video clip of me performing out there at Greenwood,” he says. ” I think the first thing I started doing with them was Dean Martin, with the Rat Pack show. That was quite a while back.”
Also on the bill is the Tulsa Rock Quartet, whose publicity material describes it as dedicated to “bridging the gap between the classical and rock performance worlds, as well as all the worlds in-between.” Formerly known as the Tulsa Rock Ensemble, the group debuted in 2009 with a Cain’s Ballroom appearance and has played dozens of concerts since.
“I just saw them play at Guthrie Green, and they were really good,” Shadley says. “They’re all Tulsa Symphony Orchestra musicians except for Laura Talbott, who’s a professor of violin at Oklahoma State University. They were doing songs by Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and they had a drummer with them who was right in the pocket, with a backbeat and everything.”
No admission will be charged for the event, but donations are encouraged. All the money raised will benefit the Tulsa Chapter of the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.
“Everybody’s been doing their part to help our brothers and sisters in Moore during this tragic time,” says Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame CEO Jason McIntosh. “We’re glad to assist in any small way we can. This’ll be great talent helping a great cause, and we’re looking forward to everyone coming out and being a part of it.”
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is 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 preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.