Saturday, February 28, 2004

'Ella' Focuses on Singer's Life, Music

by Teresa Annas
Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, February 24, 2004

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-February, Gary Spell and Norma Bass
drove south to put together the pieces of "Ella," a one-woman show
premiering this week.

For months Bass had been singing to Spell's keyboard accompaniment in
Virginia Beach and telling stories to windows and walls as if she
were the great Ella Fitzgerald.

In Greensboro, N.C., Steve Haines' 18-piece jazz band had been
rehearsing without benefit of the woman out front. Now they would
finally get to hear what they sounded like in concert.

The Sunday night practice was exhilarating, Spell said. "Really,
without a bump. I went down there prepared for the worst, thinking
that it could be troublesome to put together.

"It was a big, loud, musical lovefest." But Spell, the show's
producer and creator, was a little worried about the scatting.
Fitzgerald, who died in 1996 at age 79, was famous for her ability to
mimic instruments with her voice. Three-quarters through the show, a
horn player might perform a complicated riff, and Bass would have to
copy it, note for note, just like Fitzgerald did.

Spell calls it "dueling solos."

The dueling rehearsal was set for the next afternoon. Bass stood
before the band and took on every player they gave her. A tenor
saxman taunted her with a challenging run. No problem. Bass came
right back with it.

An alto sax player tried to trip her up. Forget it. Bass was in the
pocket. Next came a trombonist, then a trumpeter. Bass held her own.

"We just had the most fun with it," Spell said. "Norma caught on very
naturally to it. And we'd never done that."

The North Carolina rehearsal came less than two weeks before "Ella --
The Life and Music of Ella Fitzgerald" was scheduled to premiere in
Virginia Beach. The full-length musical runs Thursday through Sunday
at Regent University Theater.

It's not like Spell whipped up the show on short notice; he's been
working with the material for three years. Bobby Melatti, program
director for Beachevents, which provides entertainment at the
Oceanfront, was behind the creation of the new Virginia Legends Walk
and had challenged Spell to concoct a show.

The Walk was finished in 1999. The first 24 honorees included Thomas
Jefferson, Arthur Ashe, Pocahontas, Patsy Cline and Fitzgerald. Spell
spent time at the site, pondering the various legends, seeking

It quickly came down to Cline and Fitzgerald. Spell envisioned a
singer with a combo, set up by the Walk, at 13th Street and Atlantic
Avenue. He knew Cline was popular, but Fitzgerald won out.

"With Ella, we have music that is even more timeless," Spell
said. "And Ella has this riveting backstory, this life of abject
poverty and abuse. There was nothing in her pedigree that suggested
she would become the icon she became."

She rose to fame in an era of racial segregation, when black
performers rarely appeared in white clubs, he said.

"She obliterated every barrier placed before her, just with the sheer
force of her talent.

"To me, that was ringing with natural pathos and drama, in a way that
Patsy's story was not."

He spent the first two months of 2001 immersed in Fitzgerald. He read
books, listened to CDs, watched videos. He settled on a form: He
would place Fitzgerald in concert and have her alternate monologues
with music.

He wrote stories the performer could tell to convey Fitzgerald's
journey -- about her birth in 1917 in Newport News and her family's
move a few years later to Yonkers, N.Y. He wrote about her first
performance, in 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem , and how she
toured, starting the next year, with Chick Webb's big band.

Spell spliced those stories with songs: "A-Tisket A-Tasket." "I'm in
the Mood for Love." "How High the Moon." "I Got Rhythm."

Then he held auditions. Bass showed up, even though her performance
experience consisted mostly of singing in her church choir. Spell saw
a woman who looked a lot like Fitzgerald; he heard a clear, strong
voice that ranged 3½ octaves. She wasn't trained in theater, but she
had a warm, appealing stage presence.

Bass had never sung jazz, hadn't even heard Fitzgerald's music. But
Spell sensed she felt an instant connection with the music. When she
accepted the role, he was thrilled he wouldn't have to compromise the
music to accommodate a voice with less range than Fitzgerald's.

From the start, tourists and locals heard the band and Bass' voice
and moved toward the half-hour concert. When all the folding chairs
were full, folks would stand and listen.

Even as the show premiered at the Oceanfront, Spell began imagining a
full-scale musical. He had directed and performed enough of them to
have a feel for the genre.

He's best known locally for running the Dinner Theater at Founders
Inn, from 1991 until it closed in 1999, when Christian Broadcasting
Network, owner of the facility, turned the theater into a conference
room. Spell staged around 25 musicals there.

Since then he has patched a living by designing and engineering audio
for theaters and by composing, arranging and orchestrating music for
businesses and educational groups. He is music director, executive
pastor and interim youth pastor for Glad Tidings Church in Norfolk.
He also mounted and performed in shows like "Forever Plaid" at the
Oceanfront for Beachevents.

Spell, 37, lives in Virginia Beach with his wife, Jen , and their 2-
year-old daughter, Grace.

He is a fan of jazz but wasn't deep into the music. He brought up-and-
coming jazz bassist Steve Haines into the project during the summer
of 2002. Haines lived in Virginia Beach in the mid-1990s and worked
on a few of Spell's shows. The jazz bassist left to become director
of the Miles Davis Program in Jazz Studies at the University of North
Carolina at Greensboro.

Spell lured him back to play in the "Ella" trio for a month or so.
They backed Bass in the evenings then worked on new material to try
out on stage the next night. Bass floated well with the daily
changes, Spell recalled.

Haines committed to arranging and orchestrating the music and got the
OK to commit the UNC big band he directs to the gig. Meanwhile, Spell
finagled permission from Fitzgerald's estate to produce the show.

"Ella" ended up much like the street version, just 75 minutes longer,
Spell said last week.

Along the way, he got clear on his goals. "This is not an expose. Its
first and primary purpose is to entertain." "I have intentionally
steered away from gory details."

Spell uses a light hand on the saddest phases of Fitzgerald's
history. She was around 14 when her mother died and soon left home to
escape her stepfather. Out on the streets, she made money in sordid
ways, such as being a lookout for speakeasies. She ended up in a
reformatory, where she was beaten. While suggesting her troubles,
Spell felt that "in more detail, it seemed lurid."

Spell's monologues don't mention her first, annulled marriage or the
Norwegian cad she fell for who was jailed for stealing from a former
girlfriend. She met jazz bassist Ray Brown in 1946, wed him and was
divorced by 1952.

"That's gone right now," he said. "It could come back."

Spell has an eye on Broadway but knows the odds are tough. He plans
to put a performance on DVD and shop it around to New York producers
and potential investors.

He can only guess what will happen next.

"The important thing is that, coming out of next weekend, we will
know for sure what we have," Spell said. "And that's a big deal. We
will have seen it, been able to tweak it."

Area audiences might see the only performances of Spell's big
project. Or they might see the first staging of a new hit.

"This music is so great, and this band is on fire," he said. "If they
come and see this show and do not jiggle in their seats, I want to
check their pulse."

Photo of Norma Bass as Ella:

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

1. Stop This World
2. The Girl In The Other Room
3. Temptation
4. Almost Blue
5. I've Changed My Address
6. Love Me Like A Man
7. I'm Pulling Through
8. Black Crow
9. Narrow Daylight
10. Abandoned Masquerade
11. I'm Coming Through
12. Departure Bay

1. Stop This World
2. The Girl In The Other Room
3. Temptation
4. Almost Blue
5. I've Changed My Address
6. Love Me Like A Man
7. I'm Pulling Through
8. Black Crow
9. Narrow Daylight
10. Abandoned Masquerade
11. I'm Coming Through
12. Departure Bay

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Diana Krall Sold Out benefit Show - Tics Left At eBay only!
VANCOUVER - There is only one pair of tickets left for Diana Krall's benefit performance with Elton John and Elvis Costello. And there is only one way to get them. The seats, worth $1,100, will be put up for auction on eBay by the Vancouver General Hospital and the UBC Hospital Foundation.

Bids will be accepted Feb. 16 to Feb. 23 with proceeds going to the Vancouver General Hospital's leukemia/bone marrow transplantation program. The winner will get access to the intimate show, which quickly sold out, and an exclusive photo opportunity with Krall. The offer to pose for special photos is different for the typically shy Krall, said Michelle Welygan, a spokeswoman for the event. "She's just so passionate about this cause she's willing to do just about anything," she said. The jazz diva is hosting the benefit as a way of thanking leukemia program workers who cared for her late mother, Adella, who died in May 2002. Since 1998, Krall has held concerts raising over $500,000 for the program. The money has gone towards medical equipment and assisting out-of-town patients. Over the last 10 years the leukemia program has become internationally recognized as a leading centre for treatment and clinical research. This latest blockbuster concert will be held March 5 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. There are only 600 seats, sold exclusively to patrons of the leukemia program, giving fans a chance to see the performers up close.

Recorded live in 1975 and unreleased until now, this moving session by
jazz singer Irene Kral offers up some of her most heartfelt renditions
of many tunes associated with Irene over the years, plus a few surprises
not recorded before. This wonderful live recording was performed at The
Catamaran Hotel in San Diego, California and features Irene Kral with
Mike Wofford on piano, Bob Magnusson on bass, and Tony Marillo on drums:

Irene Kral, Vocals
Mike Wofford, Piano
Bob Magnusson, Bass
Tony Marillo, Drums

CD availability scheduled for March 14, 2004

Issued by arrangement with the Irene Kral estate

Track listing on website:

Monday, February 16, 2004

Columbia/Legacy Remembers Duke

United Press International, February 14, 2004

Columbia/Legacy is paying homage to Duke Ellington 30 years after his
death with the issue of expanded editions of three of his classic
1950s recordings.

Today's CD format has enabled the label to issue interrupted and
expanded versions of material originally released on 10-inch, 33 1/3
rpm records. The composer and bandleader died on May 24, 1974. His
recording affiliation with Columbia ran from 1927 to 1962.

The homage package, to be released next Tuesday, includes 1951's
"Masterpieces by Ellington" with concert length arrangements of "Mood
Indigo" and "Sophisticated Lady" plus three bonus tracks; 1952's
"Ellington Uptown," with extended versions of "Take the 'A' Train,"
"The Mooche" and "Perdido" plus "The Controversial Suite" and "The
Liberian Suite;" and 1959's "Festival Session" with "V.I.P's Boogie"
and "Jam with Sam," two previously unissued bonus tracks from the

The package is part of the label's Columbia/Legacy Jazz Masterpiece

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Concord's upcoming releases include the following, according to a
new article on

March 23
Rosemary Clooney: "Songs from the Classic Television Series"
(Intended to coincide, perhaps, with an upcoming PBS special on
Rosie that uses extensive clips from her 1956 TV series? Might
this include duets with her guests?)

April 27
Various Artists: "Live at Caesars Palace" (Neon Tonic)
Sammy Davis, Jr: "Live at Caesars Palace" (Neon Tonic)

This "Neon Tonic" imprint series was announced several years ago;
if memory serves it got tied up in some messy litigation and changed
hands once or twice? I think most of the material -- recorded without
the performers' knowledge? -- dates from the late 1960s and early
1970s? Jazz Times describes the various-artist disc as follows:

"Las Vegas ain't exactly the place you go to hear great music these
days, but back in the day, let me tell you... On April 27 Concord
will release 'Live at Caesars Palace,' a collection of never-before-
heard live performances by artists like Frank Sinatra, Keely Smith,
Lena Horne and even Duke Ellington, all recorded at the famous

Sunday, February 01, 2004


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