A stellar group of singers and musicians joined forces last Friday night to celebrate the Centennial birthday of singer Ella Fitzgerald, but it was the audience at the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall that were treated to a barrel full of gifts.
Slightly different versions of this show, which carry the “Apollo” imprint,have been popping up in other cities this year, so this past Friday it was Miami’s turn to enjoy “Ella Fitzgerald 100th Birthday Tribute Direct from the Apollo Theater.” The show also played double duty as the 10th anniversary kickoff for the Adrienne Arsht Center’s fabled “Jazz Roots” series.
While Fitzgerald-themed concerts are generally crowd-pleasers, this show, originating from the Apollo, carries historical authenticity, because it was at this Harlem venue where the teenaged Fitzgerald was discovered.
That momentous moment was recreated at the very opening of the concert when the stage dramatically darkened, and singer Wé McDonald, stepped in front of the microphone, serving as the Fitzgerald stand-in. She began to sing, at first tentatively, and then, picked up steam for the Hoagy Carmichael composition, “Judy." It was the same song that electrified the audience when Fitzgerald sang it 83 years ago.
This beginning primed the audience for the concert’s structure – a loose retelling of Fitzgerald’s history, in an evening that had been specially curated for the Miami audience, Jazz Roots Artistic Director and renowned jazz pianist Shelly Berg (himself a fixture at the Apollo tributes) announced.
Seasoned performers David Alan Grier and Niki Haris served as co-emcees. Although best known for his comedy “In Living Color,” Grier is a multiple Tony Award nominee for his Broadway chops, and Haris has worked with a multitude of stars, Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, and, most famously, Madonna.
Monica Mancini, the daughter of composer Henry Mancini, is a frequent presence at Fitzgerald tributes, especially fitting as she met Fitzgerald when she was growing up, and offered the personal insight that the singer was “very humble,” despite her fame.
Clint Holmes, a polished Las Vegas showman, rounded out the veteran vocalists, while McDonald and Brianna Thomas, both who are making their names in the jazz world, represented the younger generation.
Music was provided by the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. The young musicians were ably assisted by well-known jazz greats, including Berg, acclaimed bassist Chuck Bergeron; Field, who, at the age of 30, toured with Fitzgerald as her drummer, and produces the Apollo shows, and guitarist Brian Nova, a protégé of Fitzgerald colleague Joe Pass. Also taking their turn on stage was the music school’s Vocal Sextet, performing a successfully intricate version of the Fitzgerald favorite “Lady Be Good.”
Following Anderson’s appearance, it was time for Grier to take the stage, and marvel over the fact that Fitzgerald had first planned to dance for the Apollo talent competition, then had switched at the last minute to song. “Can you imagine what would have happened to music history?” he exclaimed. Then he handed the stage over to Haris, who expertly reeled off a polished version of Fitzgerald’s early hit, “A Tisket, A Tasket.”
Next up was Brianna Thomas, a young singer whose specialty is '30s style music. She's gained recognition on YouTube for her tutorial on Fitzgerald's scat style.
Thomas showed off her skills in her winning rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose,” which, like McDonald’s following song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’, both nowadays associated with Fats Waller, but were made hits by Fitzgerald. Thomas also closed the first act of the show by singing, “How High the Moon,” holding that last note, which seemed like forever.
McDonald was the most obvious incarnate of Fitzgerald, even mirroring her personal history, telling the audience, “I know how scary it is to stand in that (Apollo) spotlight.” Just turned 18, McDonald, like Fitzgerald, wowed that Apollo amateur hour multiple times, before going on to national popularity on “The Voice.” Later in the concert, McDonald also showed off Fitzgerald’s bluesy side quite fittingly with her rendition of “Blues in the Night, and, in the second act, with the torchy “Cry Me a River.”
First and foremost, though, Fitzgerald was a balladeer, and this aspect of her talent was well served by the elegance of Monica Mancini, who took her time in performing a heartrending version of “But Not For Me,” in honor of the twice-divorced unlucky-in-love Fitzgerald.Later in the show, though, Mancini struck a more lighthearted note, singing “Aguae beber” (“Water to Drink”) from Fitzgerald’s only Brazilian album, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Antonio Jobim Songbook.”
One of many standouts in the show was pairing of Grier and Haris,who recreated the duet, “Do Nothing 'Til You Here From Me,” with Grier recreating his Tony Award-nominated role as Porgy and Bess’s “Sportin’ Life.”It was recorded by Fitzgerald with her musical partner Louis Armstrong. (Grier and Haris reunited later for “There’s a Boat Data’s Leaving Soon for New York.”)
Fitzgerald was most known for the wide variety of her vocal styles, and one of her most notable trademarks was her ability to scat. The best example of this was seen in her performance of “Mac the Knife,”—you know, the one where she forgot the lyrics, improvising so successful that the album it’s on, “Ella in Berlin,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Holmes also served as the evening’s Sinatra stand-in, performing a breakneck speed version of “Just One of those Things,” followed later with a vibrant duet with Thomas of “The Lady is a Tramp.”
One of the show’s most poignant moments, again focused on Fitzgerald’s legacy, came with Mancini’s heartfelt rendition of “Once in Awhile,” with its plaintive lyric, “once in awhile will you try to give a little thought to me.”
Wistfulness was not allowed to linger long as almost instantly, Grier and Haris were back, together again, with a rousing rendition of Fitzgerald’s “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini),” who then were joined by the entire cast, which signaled the finale, with the audience joining in on a jazzy – and raucous – version of “Happy Birthday to You.”
All in all, Fitzgerald was very well represented by this joyous celebration. All that was missing was a slice of cake.
Next up in the Jazz Roots season 10th anniversary season is "An Evening With Jon Batiste and Stay Human (house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Dec. 15, 2017. For info about all of the upcoming Jazz Roots concerts, go to www.arshtcenter.org/jazzroots