An evening for Ella
Stanford Jazz musicians salute a legend with a July 11 concert
How do you pay proper homage to a beyond-words legend?
If you're the Stanford Jazz Festival, you salute the late iconic singer Ella Fitzgerald with a tribute concert. And you assemble a seasoned cast of players: musicians including vocalists Mary Stallings, who sang with the Count Basie band; and Kenny Washington, who'll bring along his four-octave range and speedy scatting.
Palo Alto bassist Seward McCain, a longtime Stanford Jazz faculty member, is also on the bill for the July 11 concert, along with saxophonist Noel Jewkes, trumpeter Erik Jekabson, pianist Larry Dunlap and drummer Leon Joyce.
Fitzgerald has long been praised for her tone, phrasing and influential interpretations of the American Songbook, as well as for her skillful scat singing. "She's the queen," McCain said simply.
She also gained attention at an early age. She was just a teenager when she won an amateur-night award at New York's Apollo Theater and joined Chick Webb's big band, and 21 when she made her breakout 1938 recording of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." It's fitting that the July 11 concert will also feature two young singers, Laila Smith and Holly Smolik.
Smolik, 17, is a local; she's a Ladera resident who recently graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School, where she sang with Frank Moura's acclaimed jazz band. When Smolik learned she'd been chosen for the Ella Fitzgerald tribute concert, she was ecstatic. (Her exact words: "Mom! I got a gig!")
There's some apprehension, too. Last week, as Smolik sat in the audience at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium, she reflected on Ella Fitzgerald, on listening to her recordings, watching a biography about her life, writing a paper on her.
"I feel so bad, because I won't be able to do her justice," Smolik said, swinging a shiny shoe she was wearing with a properly retro dress. "No one can ever get to her level, I don't think."
Smolik has a good ally in practicing for the concert: her brother Bill, a trumpeter who first introduced her to jazz.
"He was 14 when I was 5, so I've known Frank (Moura) since then," she said. She went on to take jazz lessons at middle school and attend jazz camp at the Stanford Jazz Workshop for five years. One of her favorite camp teachers was the singer/pianist Dena DeRose: "In one day, she taught me how to transcribe and transpose music."
Like her brother, Smolik thinks jazz is "much better than any kind of music." It's hard work. Much of it is live. And there's a sense of teamwork in harmonizing and improvising with other people, she noted.
Smolik added: "Jazz is the easiest for me to sing. Pop is belty. I have that jazz, smoky-ish, smooth sound." Occasionally she'll stretch high up into the head voice. At a recent performance of "Every Day I Have the Blues," she hit what she called a "kidney note." She laughed. "I think I hurt myself."
Regarding the July 11 concert, Smolik is thinking about singing "Angel Eyes," and perhaps "Honeysuckle Rose" or "Black Coffee."
As for bassist Seward McCain, he's preparing for the concert in part by listening to his large collection of Ella recordings and getting inspired. Also a composer, McCain is a longtime performing and touring musician whose resume includes recording "Peanuts" soundtracks with pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi.
"I always wanted to work with Ella, and she passed away before I got a chance," McCain said in a phone interview. He did get to see her perform live a few times, including a show at the Venetian Room in San Francisco not long before her death in 1996. "That was a privilege."
McCain said he's not yet sure what will be on the July 11 concert program, but added: "I will always be prepared if anyone is going to do 'Mac the Knife.'"
For Smolik, the Ella Fitzgerald concert is also a fine kick-off to a year intended to focus on the arts. She plans to take at least a year off before college to pursue music, acting and comedy. Later this summer, she'll be in the Palo Alto Children's Theatre's production of the musical "Barnum," and she just might audition for "American Idol."
In keeping with the digital age, she's also building an online portfolio of performance videos at youtube.com/hollysmolik, and hoping for hits and attention.
"YouTube gets you out there," she said. "Justin Bieber got discovered on YouTube." Then she lets out a world-weary laugh, one that's all ready for singing in smoky clubs. "I don't know why they picked a man with a four-year-old voice."
What: "Ella Fitzgerald: America's First Lady of Song," a concert presented by the Stanford Jazz Festival
Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 11
Cost: $32 general, $18 for students
Info: Go to stanfordjazz.org or call 650-725-2787. Alisa Clancy of KCSM will also give a pre-concert talk at 1:30 p.m.; admission is free with a concert ticket.