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Concert preview: 'Golden Age of Jazz' explores vocal styling of true virtuosos

Published: Saturday, Sept. 14 2013 12:37 p.m. MDT

Singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra have left an indelible mark on American popular music through their vocal stylings. Fusing a conversational delivery with rhythmic and melodic improvisation, the uniquely American vocal style of jazz was developed.

Popular local soloist Ginger Bess will stage “The Golden Era of Jazz” as part of the Grand Theatre’s Backstage at the Grand concert series Sept. 19-21.

“These famous jazz vocalists had such great control of their voices but also an understanding of the importance and ability to interpret what they were singing, and this set them apart as the best of that era,” says Bess. “Singers nowadays can sing songs, entertain an audience and get on the radio. But do they really understand the words and the stories that are being told? The famous jazz singers really knew how to bring out the blues in a song or bring out the happiness in a song.”

The ability to articulate music expressively and have a musical pizzazz to swing to the rhythms effectively made the standout vocalists true virtuosos of the genre in the 1940s and ’50s.

Often considered the foremost female singer in jazz history, Billie Holiday approached performing music from a radical angle, explaining, in her own words, “I don’t feel like I’m singing, I feel like I’m playing the horn.” Her genius lay with impeccable timing, nuanced phrasing and emotional immediacy, qualities that were admired by her followers and made her arguably more influential than that of any other jazz singer.

Additionally, the distinctively unpretentious and smooth voice of Rosemary Clooney earned her recognition as one of the country’s premiere jazz vocalists.

“Rosemary Clooney really, really knew how to tell stories through her singing,” Bess says. “I grew up listening to her, and before I even knew who she was, when I was singing something different, people told me that I sounded very much like her, and I realized I could learn a lot just by listening to her music.

“I used her songs as homework. Even though I never met Rosemary Clooney or any of these great singers, I learned so much from them, just listening to their wonderful music. They became my favorite voice teachers.”

Along with the concert performance, Bess will be introducing the songs, explaining which vocalists originated them and made them most popular.

“I’ll be singing songs made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney. The music is timeless and holds strong,” she says. “Even contemporary artists like Michael Buble and Diana Krall have resurfaced this music for a younger generation. There will be audiences of both the young and the old, and will bring these people together. The songwriters of that period wrote solid music that is timeless.”

But there will also be some surprises, Bess promises.

“For example, there’s one jazz singer named Blossom Dearie, who is not necessarily the most famous singer,” she explains. “Once I got into jazz, I fell in love with her style and her type of music, with a very laid-back feeling to her singing. So perhaps people who thought they knew a lot about the music of that era will come away surprised and pleased by what they have learned. I hope the evening will be fun and educational but also very classy.”

If you go ...

What: Backstage at the Grand’s “The Golden Era of Jazz Ginger Bess"

Where: The Grand Theatre

When: Sept. 19-21, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $20

Tickets: 801-957-3322 or the-grand.org

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