Ladies of Song
The Columbus Jazz Orchestra pays tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and four other legends of the swing era.
It’s been 32 years, but Columbus Jazz Orchestra conductor Byron Stripling still marvels at the moment he hugged Ella Fitzgerald. As the newest member of the Count Basie Orchestra, Stripling was rehearsing his solo for an evening performance in Los Angeles when a bandmate approached with a suggestion that seemed a tad unconventional to the young trumpeter.
“He told me that as soon as I saw Ella enter backstage, I needed to line up with the rest of the orchestra and give her a big hug,” the conductor recalls. “I told him I was in awe of her and that there was no way I could be that forward. I’ll never forget his answer: He said that if I didn’t do it, Ella would think I didn’t like her.”
Stripling followed suit, and the admiration he felt for the jazz vocalist known as “The First Lady of Song” increased tenfold.
“I was struck by how modest she was,” he says. “Ella was suffering from diabetes and could barely see, but she was so grateful. She couldn’t believe we would take the time to greet her and make her feel welcome before the show. It was a very emotional meeting.”
Stripling will come full circle from that unforgettable encounter Feb. 2 through 5, when he leads the Columbus Jazz Orchestra in a quartet of concerts celebrating “Ella Fitzgerald & the Great Ladies of Swing.” Staged to commemorate the centennial of Fitzgerald’s birth, each performance will also showcase four of her contemporaries: Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan.
Joining Stripling and his 15-piece ensemble are singer-actress Marva Hicks, who starred on Broadway in “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” and Australian bassist-vocalist Nicki Parrott, who performed with renowned guitarist Les Paul for more than a decade.
“No matter where you travel around the world, people know who Ella, Billie, Peggy, Sarah and Lena are,” Stripling says. “They’re no longer with us, but their music still reaches out and grabs people.”
Although swing music was performed in the 1920s, it was the live radio broadcast of Benny Goodman’s 1935 concert at Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom that cemented the genre’s popularity.
“Any time you have an ‘era,’ the world is ready for a change, and ‘the swing era,’ which lasted until about 1946, was no exception,” says Los Angeles-based journalist John Tumpak, author of When Swing was the Thing: Personality Profiles of the Big Band Era. “America was in the depths of the Great Depression, and the music flowed in a unique new beat that was revolutionary. Just as we have rock stars today, so, too, were Glenn Miller, the Dorsey brothers and other band leaders the rock stars of their day.”
Song stylists — including Fitzgerald, who was known for her ingenious improvisation with nonsense syllables known as scat singing; the melancholic Holiday; the striking Horne; the sultry Lee; and the sassy Vaughan — contributed to the music’s appeal.
Tumpak credits them with being a backbone of the groups they performed with and admires their seemingly effortless ability to rise to a task that was a lot tougher than it looked.
“Although they were part of the band, most of the singers sat off to the side on stage night after night waiting to perform, which took an incredible amount of patience and upbeat theatrics,” the author says. “You never saw anyone paunchy or over 60 up there. The vocalists were young, vivacious and attractive — and they could sure swing with the beat.”
Stripling, 55, discovered that fact growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although his classmates listened to British Invasion bands, he embraced the swing music his parents revered. It led him to pick up the trumpet when he was in fifth grade.
“Music was a powerful anchor for us, and my parents had a lot of pride in the black musicians who were performing at the time,” Stripling says. “Whenever Johnny Carson had Ella or Louis Armstrong or Sammy Davis Jr. on ‘The Tonight Show,’ my mother would wake me up to watch, even on a school night. It was only later when groups like Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears pushed the envelope by adding horns and merging jazz and rock together that I started listening to the music my friends did.”
As Stripling selects the playlist for the shows, he eagerly anticipates not only sharing the lasting appeal of the tunes with enthusiasts of his and his parents’ generations, but also with the 20-, 30- and 40-something crowds.
“The beauty that happens in the theater with jazz and its improvisation and spontaneity can’t be found on YouTube,” he says. “You can get it through a good recording, but there’s just something about feeling it up against your face in a concert hall. And if I can get a young person to come in … it’s sold, done, boom!”
Ella Fitzgerald & The Great Ladies of Swing
Feb. 2–5 | Southern Theatre
21 E. Main St., Columbus 43215
Times: Thur. 7:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 8 p.m., Sun 3 p.m.
Tickets: $25–$58 (excluding fees)
Byron’s Greatest Hits
Columbus Jazz Orchestra conductor Byron Stripling talks about the tunes he loves most that were made famous by his “great ladies of swing.”
Ella Fitzgerald: “Just One of Those Things”
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, 1935
“Back then, it was unusual for a composer to write music and lyrics. Porter’s lyrics, … If we’d thought a bit of the end of it when we started painting the town, we’d have been aware that our love affair was too hot not to cool down … knowing that Ella was unlucky in love, I get chills when I hear her rendition of this song. It must have been especially poignant for her.”
Billie Holiday: “God Bless the Child”
Written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr., 1939
“Billie was a revolutionary, recording songs about subjects that never had been discussed before, including ‘Strange Fruit,’ a searing depiction of a lynching. Drugs permeated her whole life to the point where these days she’d be in the Betty Ford Center. When I hear her recording and the lyrics that she helped write, … money, you’ve got lots of friends crowding ’round the door. When you’re gone, and spending ends, they don’t come no more … I can’t help but wonder if she was talking about her own sad life.”
Lena Horne: “Stormy Weather”
Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, 1933
“Lena was absolutely beautiful. In fact, she was the only woman my father would talk about other than my mother. In this rendition of the song, which she performed in the 1943 musical of the same name, you can hear the pain in her voice when she sings, … since my man and I ain’t together, keeps raining all the time. … There’s an undertone of sexiness in everything she sings, and you feel that little bit of heat rising whenever she performs.”
Peggy Lee: “Fever”
Written by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, 1956, with additional lyrics by Peggy Lee
“Peggy Lee is so quiet that she always made her audiences really listen to her. But there’s nothing understated about ... when you put your arms around me, I get a fever that’s so hard to bear. ... With her cool and breathy voice, Peggy always came out swinging.”
Sarah Vaughan: “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You”
Written by Ray Noble, 1938
“When I hear Sarah’s voice, it’s personal. She used to perform this song when she toured with the Count Basie Orchestra, and when I hear the lyrics, … I used to lie awake and wonder, if there could be a someone in this wide world, just made for me … it harkens back to the times I sat with her on the bus and she told stories about Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Billy Eckstine and her early days on the road.”