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Wynton Marsalis brings Ella Fitzgerald tribute to Tilles Center

Wynton Marsalis leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center

Wynton Marsalis leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Tilles Center on Sunday. Credit: Jazz at Lincoln Center

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, brings its tribute concert, “Celebrating Ella: The First Lady of Jazz,” to Tilles Center for an encore performance Sunday evening.

Marsalis, nine-time Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer, for both jazz and classical music, and the only Pulitzer Prize winner for a jazz album (“Blood on the Fields,” 1997), is also founding director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The Ella Fitzgerald gala tribute Wednesday night in Manhattan was timed to coincide with the centennial of her birth, Tuesday. (The concert is to be reprised, with fewer A-listers, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.)

After winning $25 on amateur night at the Apollo Theater, Fitzgerald rose to fame in the 1930s singing with the Chick Webb Orchestra at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, turning a nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” into an unlikely hit. She counted the greatest names in 20th century jazz among her collaborators: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and later, when she turned to reinterpreting the Great American Songbook, Frank Sinatra — by some accounts, luring him out of retirement in the 1970s.


Known for purity of tone — her voice was at once velvety and vibrant — Fitzgerald invented a hornlike improvisational skill in scat-singing, following the decline of the big-band Swing era in the 1940s. “I just tried to do what I heard the horns in the band doing,” she said of this period, which became dominated by bebop.

Fitzgerald remained more of a niche artist — jazz was associated with an urban and somewhat underground taint in the post-Prohibition era — until she joined a new label, Verve Records, and started singing standards in an accessible, jazz-arrangement style. “I thought bebop was it,” Fitzgerald said, “until it got to the point where I had no place to sing anymore. Norman [Granz, founder of Verve] felt that I should be doing other things. So he produced ‘The Cole Porter Songbook’ with me. It was a turning point in my life.”

No less a celebrity than Marilyn Monroe lobbied the 1950s management of Hollywood’s hip Mocambo nightclub to book Fitzgerald in her new role as songbook chanteuse extraordinaire. Gershwin and Ellington recordings followed and Fitzgerald was more in demand than ever.


Marsalis, with his scholarly bent — music education is one of his passions as passed on by his father, New Orleans jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. — cites Fitzgerald for her “phrasing and intent,” along with other female jazz legends, including Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. “They knew how to take their time.”

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Kenny Washington and Roberta Gambarini are guest vocalists for Sunday’s concert in a diverse repertoire of arrangements by Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra tracing Fitzgerald’s career. Gambarini, in the daunting Ella role, is described by National Endowment for the Arts jazz master Hank Jones as “the best new jazz singer to come along in 50 years.”

WHAT Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis, “Celebrating Ella: The First Lady of Jazz”

WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Sunday, Tilles Center, LIU Post campus, Brookville

TICKETS Concert: $53-$83. Performance Plus: 6:45 p.m. with the Long Island Sound Vocal Jazz Ensemble, $5; 516-299-3100,

WHAT The theatrical jazz duo of singer Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner will be in concert at Staller Center on Saturday night, performing selections from Salvant’s 2014 Grammy-nominated “WomanChild” and her follow-up recording, “For One to Love,” which won the 2016 Grammy for best jazz vocal album.

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, Staller Center Recital Hall, Stony Brook University

TICKETS $42; 631-632-2787,

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