On Monday night, the Thornton Jazz Orchestra took the stage at Carson Center to pay tribute to one of the genre’s pioneers, Ella Fitzgerald. Six months after what would have been the singer’s 100th birthday, her music proved capable of standing the test of time, filling the air with swinging notes as band and audience members alike reminisced on her legacy.
For those less familiar with Fitzgerald’s career, the concert doubled as a history lesson thanks to moments of reflection between songs. Conductor Bob Mintzer imparted his extensive knowledge on the crowd whenever possible, speaking on Fitzgerald’s early work with Chick Webb’s band as well as some of the other highlights of her career. Mintzer delved into his own personal anecdotes about Fitzgerald (including the fact that he used to play basketball with the son of acclaimed composer Jerry Bock, whose song “Too Close for Comfort” Fitzgerald famously covered), and his dialogue helped create a more intimate experience, giving the audience more than just classical music.
Kathleen Grace was one of the two vocalists who covered Fitzgerald’s songs in the performance, and went into detail about how vital the First Lady of Song was in her own jazz career. Also a professor in the Jazz Studies and Jazz Voice Program, Grace mentioned how she often instructs her students to study live tapes of Fitzgerald’s performances to improve their musicianship.
“Especially her live recordings, I’ll give to my students who are working on swing,” Grace said. “Nobody swings like Ella; she’d swing even when she didn’t want to.”
For saxophonist Chris Sullivan, a doctoral student pursuing jazz studies, Fitzgerald’s music, as well as that of other early jazz musicians, is a treasure he doesn’t often get to experience with an audience.
“You don’t have a whole lot of opportunities to play it in public,” Sullivan said. “It’s stuff that we all practice, study and enjoy on our own time, and it’s a total treat to be able to play it in a public setting.”
Playing songs from “Take The A Train” to “You’ll Have to Swing It, Mr. Paganini,” the band explored all sides of Fitzgerald’s catalogue. Many songs carried a light, infectious bounce, while others slowed down the tempo to truly bring out the emotion.
Sara Gazarek, the other featured vocalist and a professor in Thornton’s jazz studies program, took pleasure in channeling Fitzgerald’s high-energy persona onstage. Sharing her personal recollection of reading the original jazz charts for “On the Sunny Side of the Street” at the Library of Congress, she brought her own flair to the performance.
At times, it can be difficult for the band to rotate between singers during the show, but Sullivan said he never had to alter his playing style to fit either voice. Speaking to the character of both Gazarek and Grace, he mentioned how there was little for the band to worry about when covering Fitzgerald’s classics on stage.
“They both sing so well, and their musicianship is so fantastic that they make our job easy,” he said.
For Grace, Fitzgerald’s bright spirit and genuine love of the music is what set her apart from her peers. Dubbed the First Lady of Song, Fitzgerald was instrumental in her development as a young musician, ensuring that her songs will always hold a sentimental place in her heart.
“Pretty much any jazz musician I know has had their time falling in love with her music, her tone and the pure joy for life that comes across when she sings,” Grace said. “Getting to do these charts and arrangements that are so evocative of baby musician memories, it’s very meaningful.”