Oregon Festival of American Music 2011 is dedicated to two of the greatest practitioners of the classic Songbook, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and their especial role in the establishment of that form as we know it today. During the 1950s and ‘60s the rise of rock and fundamental changes in popular culture and entertainment commerce pushed older popular music forms into the background and posed a particular threat to the classic Songbook compositional and performance style. Indeed, by the mid ‘50s all the established Songbook composers and performers, including Fitzgerald and Sinatra, faced serious career challenges.
Sinatra’s comeback as a performer was certainly in part due to his success as an actor, commencing with his Academy Award-winning performance in 1953’s From Here To Eternity. His comeback—and ultimate importance—as a singer began that same year with his signing with Capital Records: in a series of exceptional LPs issued during the rest of the decade and into the next, coupled with his commitment to the inherent character of the classic Songbook, he not only reestablished his singing career, he helped shape our understanding of what the American Songbook standard is.
Fitzgerald’s comeback, and her equally important contribution to the Songbook standard came in the form of jazz impresario Norman Granz. By the early ‘50s Fitzgerald’s Bop-based scat and improvisation style, which has always impressed jazz aficionados, was largely out of mode. Granz, brilliantly, established Verve records around her extraordinary voice in 1955 and over the next 8 years produced a collection of recordings each dedicated to a “straight” treatment of the best work of the best American Songbook composers–-the Gershwins, Berlin, Porter, Mercer, Ellington & Strayhorn, Arlen, Rodgers & Hart, and Kern. This series, collectively known as The Ella Fitzgerald Songbook, was certainly not the only recorded output of Fitzgerald at the time, nor was it even the best of her work during those years. It was, however, what propelled Fitzgerald to international popular success and did as much to shape the “classic American Songbook" as had Sinatra’s work at Capital.
We have used the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook as the structural model for OFAM 2011. Seven concerts--5 led by OFAM jazz director Ken Peplowski and the other 2 designed by Shedd favorites Shirley Andress and Siri Vik--mirror the Fitzgerald recordings, honoring the songs of each composer that Ella and Frank made their own. For our eighth concert, coming halfway through the festival week, jazz director Ken Peplowski departs only slightly, with a jazz party evening held in honor of Ella’s 1956-57 work with another great standard bearer for the Songbook – Louis Armstrong on 3 phenomenal Verve projects, Ella and Louis, Ella and Louis Again, and Porgy and Bess.
To round out the 2011 OFAM performance package with (as always) a classic American Songbook vehicle, we’re extremely pleased to present George & Ira Gershwin’s 1930 musical comedy masterpiece GIRL CRAZY. Heavily revised in 1954 and re-cast entirely in 1992 as CRAZY FOR YOU, GIRL CRAZY is American musical comedy at its best—stylish, witty, fast-paced and filled with great songs and plenty of dancing. We’ve located the original Guy Bolton/John McGowan script, which is truly 1930s in character and feel. With its brilliant Gershwin score—including such gold standards as “I Got Rhythm”, “Embraceable You”, “Sam And Delilah” and “Could You Use Me”—our original version recreation of GIRL CRAZY will be a treat for the entire family.
A Note From Ken Peplowski, Music Director
This year's OFAM pays tribute to much more than specific composers/lyricists; we also are looking back at two of the greatest performers of the twentieth century, one interesting concept, and a host of talented arrangers and producers. Let me explain. The "Ella and Frank" (no last names necessary!) songbooks are very near and dear to my heart, for a few different reasons. The Ella songbook records are simply an iconic look at some great composers (and one lyricist!) and contain some of Ms. Fitzgerald's "purest" singing. If you're looking for amazing scat-singing and astounding vocal gymnastics (which Ella was equally adept at) you won't find them on her songbook albums. She chose (with the guidance of Norman Granz, her producer/manager) to "reign in" everything and distill her art to the essence of each song, something she does marvelously well on these records. As she usually did in her career, she put herself (more or less) in the hands of each chosen arranger, and rose to the task of finding the core of each song in whatever settings the arrangers presented her with.
Frank Sinatra, on the other hand, was known as a singer who tried to distill his persona into each and every arrangement (he was much more "hands-on" with the arrangers), many times finding fresh approaches to songs that the lyricists and composers would never have thought of themselves, although they weren't always happy with his "reworkings" of words, melodies, and tempos...Sinatra actually had the upper hand on the "songbook" concept, doing a series of composer songbook 78 albums in the 1940s well before almost anyone else (with the exception of Lee Wiley, a singer who is in serious need of a revival). He later took this concept and expanded it further into more broad "theme-based" albums in the 1950-'80s; among these records were albums built around waltzes, songs of travel, and various collections built around the concepts of heartbreak and loss (the famous Sinatra "torch" songs, or "barroom" songs, as he called them), and all of them showing his deep understanding of a lyric.
Sinatra and Ella belonged to their own mutual-appreciation society: they sang together live on quite a few occasions, although the politics of being under two different labels prevented them from recording together (much to Sinatra's consternation and regret!). They also belonged to a very small group that not only made records around the music of Duke Ellington, but also both vocalists recorded with him and his orchestra!
Since I've always felt that to do an imitation of someone is, in a strange way, to do a dis-service to the original, my approach for these shows is to try to just grasp the essence of Ella and Frank's approach, their feeling, as it were, and to reinterpret that through our own experiences. Rather than do a pale, slavish recreation of every arrangement, of every nuance in Sinatra and Fitzgerald's singing, we're going to pay our great respects to them, give a nod to the classic arrangements, and, hopefully, show you, the listening audience, how our love for Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and all the great composers and lyricists has inspired us to make our own music out of these classic songs! Besides, won't it be fun to go and listen to the Ella/Frank records after each concert and see what we've done with each song/arrangement?
Thanks for letting us take you on these journeys through what is unquestionably the heart of the Great American Songbook!
New York City, March 31st, 2011