Backstage at The Grand: “The Golden Era of Jazz with Ginger Bess,” The Grand Theatre, Sept. 19-21
Elegant evening gowns and tuxedos. Orchid corsages and rosebud boutonnières. Pressed linen tablecloths. A showgirl dance routine as a preshow. And then an announcement as this swanky nightspot is heard introducing the top-billing chanteuse. She enchants the audience with songs of unparalleled sophistication and charm, wonderfully performed.
Whether these evenings are recalled because we personally joined in the festivities or they’re known from the silver screen with “White Christmas” or other classics doesn’t matter. It was an era of entertainment remembered with fondness.
Kicking off The Grand Theatre's 2013-2014 theater season, the Backstage at The Grand concert series opened with the stunningly beautiful vocals of soloist Ginger Bess and her evening of “The Golden Era of Jazz.” Bess has a superb instrument and ample technique to impress, but the joy she brought to re-creating the performances of the top female singers when jazz was at its height of popularity made her concert memorable.
Caressing a vintage microphone, Bess mixed the standards — Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” and Duke Elllington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Don’t Got That Swing)” — with surprises, ranging from torch songs to novelties. Each song was introduced with a brief history that focused either on the soloist who made the composition most famous or the author and the back story of its creation.
The song most familiar to the audience, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” was introduced by Rosemary Clooney in the yuletide tradition, “White Christmas.” And it’s evident the catalog of the Girl Singer, as she was nicknamed, is closest to Bess’ heart and what her vocal stylings most resemble. The Clooney songs performed included “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” “Mangos” and the World War II anthem “I’ll Be Seeing You.” How did Clooney perfect the foreign-language lyrics of “Mambo Italiano”? Bess explained: from José Ferrer, the Puerto Rican actor she married twice.
Less-known is Blossom Dearie — and, yes, that is her birth name. The playful “I Won’t Dance” and “’Deed I Do,” with the lighthearted lyrics “Do I love you? Oh my! Do I! Honey, ’deed I do!,” were sung with the same reverence and elegance as the tunes by other singers. Dearie began her career with classical music, but she switched to bebop and jazz because these songs “make me feel alive,” as she was quoted.
Betty Hutton was represented by “Stuff Like That There,” Doris Day by “Fly Me to the Moon” and Helen Morgan by “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Two Billie Holiday standards were performed: “The Very Thought of You” and “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)”
And the evening couldn’t be complete without the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, “who sang nearly every song known to man,” Bess remarked, before she sang “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “Blues in the Night” and “Cry Me a River.”
Showing that Bess is not limited by a single time period of composers and jazz soloists, the show ended with an encore of “But the World Goes ’Round” penned by a contemporary Broadway composing team. But since the song written for Liza Minnelli was introduced in film “New York, New York,” which begins V-J Day of 1945, the John Kander and Fred Ebb composition was also welcomed.
Contributing greatly to the success of the performance were the accompanists, music director Nicholas Maughan on piano and Samuel Runolfson of Blue Sky Music Camps on bass cello.
Bess is a frequent performer on Utah stages, including Pioneer Theatre Company productions, and is a Weber State University voice teacher, but she also tours the state with a cabaret act — and her shows are not to be missed.
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