Gershwin, Porter, Ellington. These men are known as some of the greatest songwriters and musicians who ever lived, and their music was brought to life and remains alive today by some of the most phenomenally talented performers to ever grace the stage and the recording studio: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. On Saturday June 6, 2015, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the brilliant direction of conductor Stefan Sanders, were joined by special guests, trumpeter Byron Stripling and vocalist Marva Hicks, to pay tribute and celebrate the music and spirit of these incredible musicians and the legendary and incomparable impact they have had on music history by bringing the glory days of jazz into the present.
. . .a thrilling program.
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s influence on jazz music was foundational, with the former coming to prominence during the 1920s as an inventive and improvisational trumpet player with an instantly recognizable voice that was gravelly and skilled at scat singing. Fitzgerald began her singing career a little over a decade later, and became known in particular for her “horn-like” improvisational scat singing skills and pure tone and diction. Due to the great popularity of their music, which crossed over racial boundaries – a rare feat during this time – they respectively earned the nicknames Pops and the First Lady of Jazz. The two eventually joined forces during the late-1950s to record three albums for Verve Records, which have since become staples in any jazz record collection. Some of these arrangements were performed during this tribute concert, honoring not only Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s respective revolutionary careers, but also their musical partnership.
Trumpet virtuoso and singer Byron Stripling began his professional music career in the early-1980s, and has since toured and recorded with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, and Dave Brubeck, worked with several pops orchestras around the country, starred in the Broadway-bound Satchmo, and now works as artistic director and conductor of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra.
Vocalist and actress Marva Hicks’ career is just as impressive: she began her R&B singing career in the late-1980s with a record deal on Polydor records, has worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson, and has several television and Broadway credits to her name, including the long-running soap One Life To Live, and the popular musicals The Lion King and Caroline Or Change.
Throughout this tribute concert, both performers exhibited a natural chemistry with one another and a great showmanship and rapport with both the BPO and the audience, as well as a true love, understanding, and knowledge of this music. Most impressively, Stripling and Hicks managed to capture the respective spirits and channel certain characteristics of the musicianship of both Armstrong and Fitzgerald, while at the same time making these songs refreshingly and completely their own.
Stripling set the tone for the evening with a rousing and seemingly effortless rendition of “Tiger Rag,” while Hicks’ velvety smooth voice and wide range shined in her rendition of Fitzgerald’s signature tune, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, playfully responding to the BPO and Striplings’ singing inquiries of “Was it red?…Was it green?”, with a “No, no, no, no.” One of the shows many highlights was a difficult set of songs from Porgy and Bess.
Hicks and Stripling slowed things down with a beautiful rendition of “Summertime”, followed by Stripling’s commanding performance of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and Hicks’ heartbreaking version of the lamenting “My Man’s Gone Now”. “Sweet Georgia Brown” brought this fantastic evening to an upbeat close, and featured a hilarious bit from Stripling about conducting – Sanders temporarily relinquished his baton to allow Stripling to give the BPO their opening cue – as well as some impressive conversational scatting between the starring duo with Stripling playing Armstrong to Hicks’ Fitzgerald. It was the perfect closer to a thrilling program.
This concert was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing at Kleinhans Music Hall, which, for anyone familiar with the BPO – a truly beloved luxury in the great city of Buffalo – that is certainly saying something. The house was packed with people of all ages and backgrounds, and I think everyone in attendance would agree that it was a truly magical evening. Anyone who loves this timeless music – and let’s face it, that’s basically everyone – should be on the lookout for upcoming events in the BPO Pops Series, as well as for what the must-see duo of the incredible Byron Stripling and the brilliant Marva Hicks have in store next.
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
Ella, Louis, and All That Jazz was presented by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and special guests Byron Stripling and Marva Hicks, at Kleinhans Music Hall for one performance on June 6, 2015. For more information on upcoming BPO events, click here.