An Ode to Ella Fitzgerald
Bing Crosby once described her simply as “the greatest.” The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will try to showcase why the late Ella Fitzgerald is worthy of such praise at its tribute concert this Saturday night in the Fox Tucson Theatre. The event is sponsored by UAPresents.
Featuring the resurrection of many big-band arrangements that haven’t been performed in decades, the concert is a touring performance by the 17-member ensemble based in Washington, D.C. Kim Nazarian, the founder of the New York Voices vocal group, will be the star vocalist to accompany the orchestra.
Ella Fitzgerald joins the ranks of some of her contemporaries, like Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, who have been celebrated by the Smithsonian Orchestra in a full-length concert.
Fans of the singer can expect to hear favorites like “Lady Be Good,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Cheek to Cheek.” The repertoire will mostly consist of ballads performed by Fitzgerald in the 1940s and 1950s.
“She was so versatile,” said Keith Pawlak, adjunct instructor for the UA School of Music. “She was able to do wonders with any sized group.”
Pawlak teaches a course in the history of jazz, and Fitzgerald is one of the many vocalists covered in his curriculum. He says that one of Fitzgerald’s greatest traits was her innate ordinariness.
A teenage orphan from Yonkers, Fitzgerald always worked for her success. Pawlak said that her lack of pretension or vanity is partly what kept her popular from the 1930s through the late 1980s. Even after losing both of her legs to diabetes, the singer kept performing up until a few years before her death in 1996.
“She was always trying to do the best she [could],” Pawlak said. Compared to other blues singers of the era, like Billie Holiday or “Ma” Rainey, Pawlak said that Fitzgerald had a greater depth in her vocal range.
Pieces of Fitzgerald memorabilia can be found in a musical archive administrated by the UA’s School of Music. Postcards and photographs belonging to Fitzgerald reside within the archive, but Pawlak said one of the rarest items in possession is the original written score of an album recorded by Fitzgerald in the 1950s.
Consisting of Fitzgerald singing renditions of well-known Irving Berlin tunes, the album is remembered as being the first to earn Fitzgerald a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Fitzgerald went on to win three more times in this category.
“This manuscript puts us on par with the Smithsonian,” Pawlak said.
Having access to this type of manuscript allows an orchestra to recreate exactly what the author had envisioned, Pawlak added.
The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will attempt to play these tunes just as they were envisioned when performed by Fitzgerald. Tickets to this one-night-only event range from $27-$45 and can be purchased on the Fox Tucson Theatre’s website