Apollo’s ‘Ella 100’ Concert Celebrates First Lady of Song


Kevin Spacey (left), Andra Day, Lizz Wright, Patti Austin and David Alan Grier perform at the ApolloTheater in New York on Oct. 24.

(Photo: Courtesy Apollo Theater)

It was more than 80 years ago, on Nov. 21, 1934, that a 17-year-old singer named Ella Fitzgerald stepped onto the stage of the Apollo Theater, sang a song and, after three encores, took first prize in the legendary concert hall’s famed Amateur Night, launching an extraordinary career that would span decades.

So it was more than fitting that, in anticipation of the 2017 centennial of her birth, the singer who would come to be known as “The First Lady Of Song” should be feted in the place that first gave her a shot.

This spectacular show, titled 100: The Apollo Celebrates Ella!, was hosted by Patti Austin with David Alan Grier, and featured four of today’s finest female vocalists—Andra Day, Lizz Wright, Cassandra Wilson and Monica Mancini—plus the Howard University vocal jazz ensemble Afro Blue and the actor Kevin Spacey.

With musical accompaniment provided by The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, directed by Scotty Barnhart, and The Quartet—pianist Shelly Berg, guitarist Brian Nova, bassist Nathan East and drummer Greg Field—the program offered an evening of music worthy of Lady Ella herself.

The ambitious program began with curtains closed and an off-stage announcement reenacting the famed November 1934 introduction of the teenaged Fitzgerald to the Apollo audience.

The curtain was drawn, dramatically revealing the Basie band and string section stretched expansively across the stage. The young Afro Blue vocalist Ayodele Owolabi, in period dress as the young Ella, scampered out onto the bandstand to sing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy.”

First feigning nervousness on the song’s verses, she quickly conveyed confidence on the chorus, assertively rendering the lyrics as the band began to swing the melody. And so, the show was off to a rousing start.

Austin came on to the stage, proudly telling of her own Apollo debut, humorously recounting the story of sitting in as a 4-year-old with her godmother Dinah Washington’s band.

It was all serious business after that, as Austin—whose 2002 album For Ella earned a Grammy nomination—authoritatively delivered hard-swinging renditions of “A Tisket, A Tasket” and “When I Get High,” before closing with a prayerful reading of “Miss Otis Regrets,” after which she gazed upwardly, to blow Ella a heartfelt kiss.

Grier stepped out front to sing Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” with the Basie band backing. Barnhart played sweet obbligati on trumpet as Grier, best known for his comedic career, persuasively sang the iconic Bob Russell lyric.

Noting that the Basie organization was celebrating its 80th anniversary, he invited the band to step into the spotlight and play a swinging instrumental, Frank Foster’s “Back In The Apple.” The rendition featured impressive statements from trumpeter Kris Johnson, tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence and pianist Reggie Thomas.

The first half of the show closed out with Afro Blue singing deftly harmonized arrangements of the Fitzgerald signature songs “Lady Be Good” and “How High The Moon.”

The second segment of the show kicked off with The Quartet center stage to re-create the sound of Fitzgerald’s small groups featuring guitarist Joe Pass (1929–’94).

With Mancini out front, the group played Berg’s arrangement of “Give Me The Simple Life,” followed by an intimate duo recital of “Once In A While” by Mancini and guitarist Nova. The singer, daughter of famed composer Henry Mancini, shared an anecdote about meeting Fitzgerald. Reminiscing on the time Ella visited her family’s California home, Mancini recalled that she was amazed a person of such humility was indeed a world-renowned artist.

Austin next introduced a resplendent Wright as a “vocal angel” to the cheering crowd. Taking no time to bask in the audience’s thunderous approval, the celebrated singer dove right into a version of Ellington’s “Love You Madly” that featured solos by Berg, Nova and East.

Praising Fitzgerald as a “musician, woman, humanitarian and singer … without question one of the greatest of all time,” Wright recalled a memory of being in a crowded airport terminal in which a recording of Ella’s music provided “comfort and warmth” to all those around.

Opening “Nearness Of You” unaccompanied, Wright’s timbre provided much the same to the hushed room, her heavenly voice buoyed by the string section’s accompaniment.

After the Basie Orchestra’s sparkling performance of “April In Paris,” Austin and Grier sang a tribute to Ella and Louis Armstrong’s Porgy And Bess collaboration with a medley of “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” backed by the Basie Orchestra and strings.

Spacey and Day paid tribute to the Fitzgerald-Sinatra partnership with a rousing version of “The Lady Is A Tramp” followed by Spacey stepping into the solo spotlight, singing and dancing on “Without A Song.”

On her deeply personal interpretation of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Day began sounding much like Billie Holiday, lingering on the lyric with a throaty melisma, before stretching out in swinging fashion à la Ella.

Wilson finished up singing “Blues In The Night” and “Cry Me A River” with typically emotional depth, intermittently channeling Fitzgerald’s tonality and phrasing into her distinctively original vocalizing, before the whole cast joined in with Austin and Grier for a grand finale of “You’ll Have To Swing It (Mr. Paganini),” followed by spontaneous singing of “Happy Birthday,” Stevie Wonder-style, by the entire room.

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