Who would you say are the jazz king and queen of all time? With so many greats, it’s not easy to pin down just one pair whose names and music have transcended America’s decorated history. But there’s a good chance that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald are at the top of most lists.
Legendary as each artist stands in his/her own right, the pairing of their talents was an unforgettable treat. To celebrate this rare and magical fusion as well as Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday, Vail Jazz presents Ella and Louis: Together Again, starring Count Basie singer Carmen Bradford and Vail Jazz favorite trumpeter Byron Stripling. The duo, both of which shares personal history with the American musical heroes, unites to deliver classics from Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s trio of albums for two intimate club shows on July 26 and a tent performance on July 27.
“These are some of the most important recordings in jazz history,” says Stripling, referring to 1956’s Ella and Louis, 1957’s Ella and Louis Again and 1959’s Porgy and Bess. “Certainly Carmen and I love the music of these two giants coming together.”
So what makes this pairing so special? Anyone can agree that Armstrong and Fitzgerald had not only two extremely different approaches to music, but highly contrastive personalities. Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone, the brainchild behind the upcoming Ella and Louis tribute concerts, understands the magic of this unique combination, as does Stripling, who actually shared the stage with Fitzgerald as part of her band in her later years.
“They are two contrasting characters, but what we have is a perfect match,” Stripling says. “The playfulness of Louis Armstrong, the humor and happiness to everything he does; combine that with Ella – there’s almost this innocence in everything she does. Everything she sings is perfectly in tune, even the most technically advanced songs. You have the innocence of Ella and the jovialness of Louis. You can see him pushing her and egging her on, because she was a little nervous sometimes.”
Stripling witnessed Fitzgerald’s nervousness first-hand before their first performance together when his band mates informed him that the famous singer needed a reassuring hug before their gig.
“We got off the bus and the guys told me, ‘when we go into the concert hall, we’ll go to her dressing room and knock. You’ll give her a hug.’ I said, ‘why? I’ve never met her. I revere this lady … I’m actually scared of her,’” Stripling recalls. “But it turns out, with each new guy, she wants to know everything is OK. She was so nervous … and I’ll add insecure. You never sense it until you’re behind the scenes. They called her ‘sis,’ for sister. She really liked that. It made her feel good.”
As for Bradford, in addition to being one of the few vocalists in history handpicked by Count Basie himself, her mother, Melba Joyce, was one of Armstrong’s backup singers and she recalls meeting the monumental musician numerous times in her childhood.
“Carmen and I met on the Count Basie Band. She was the last singer that Count Basie ever hired. He absolutely loved her,” Stripling says. “If you come to the shows, you’ll get plenty of stories from Carmen about Ella. She knew her and has several of her gowns. As a kid, she knew Louis’ voice really well. She has a picture of herself on his lap.”
Stripling tells the story of how Bradford visited Fitzgerald’s house after her passing and was overjoyed to find her own CD in Fitzgerald’s stereo. While Bradford not only owns some of Fitzgerald’s gowns and has been known to wear them at times, and Stripling has a long history of channeling Armstrong’s spirit in orchestral pops programs throughout the country, neither artist aims to embody the late jazz greats.
“Carmen and I are not impressionists. You have to go to Las Vegas for that,” Stripling says. “The spirit of jazz is in us, meaning we like to do it our own way. If I can speak for Louis Armstrong, I’d say, ‘I’m here for the cause of happiness.’ In Ella’s case, she had a lot of hard times in her love life and her audience became her true love. She could walk out every night in the most fabulous gown and she was the bride. Listening to the duets makes me feel good when I’m feeling bad. They make me feel even better when I’m feeling good.”
Ella and Louis: Together Again Vail Jazz performances
Vail Jazz presents Ella and Louis Together Again featuring Carmen Bradford and Byron Stripling, joined by pianist Eric Gunnison, bassist Ken Walker, guitarist Steve Kovalcheck and drummer Dru Heller.
Wednesday, July 26
The ensemble delivers a pair of intimate performances for the Vail Jazz Club Series at Ludwig’s Terrace in The Sonnenalp Hotel. The first show is SOLD OUT! The second show begins at 9 p.m. (doors at 8:30 p.m.). Tickets are $40. Drink and dinner service are available for purchase.
Thursday, July 27
The Ella and Louis tribute comes to the big stage for an energetic Vail Jazz @Vail Square performance at 6 p.m. General admission tickets are $25, preferred seats $40 and premium seats $50. Presented by The Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea, Vail Jazz @ Vail Square takes place every Thursday evening through Aug. 24 in the all-weather Jazz Tent in The Arrabelle courtyard in Lionshead. Drinks are available for purchase.
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