By Dawn Lee Wakefield
The start of Thanksgiving week marks the perfect opportunity to bring together friends and family to celebrate life’s blessings and bounty we’ve received during the preceding 10.5 months. Collaborating to celebrate goodness in a ceremony of thankfulness, to renew the philosophy that giving is better than receiving, provides cause to invite others to join in. In that spirit, Kiki Ebsen and Clifford Bell have teamed to celebrate the work of vital nonprofit Autism Works Now, and they’ve invited some dear friends to join them. The beautiful story of this network of musical friendship formed through serendipity and a bit of universal spirit.
Four years ago, storied and talented entertainment performer and producer/director Clifford Bell and critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and producer Kiki Ebsen came together at the intersection of jazz and cabaret, aka Cabarabia, thanks to an introduction by jazz artist and mutual friend Cathy Segal-Garcia, who together with Bell, devoted proceeds from a concert collaboration, called “Season’s Greetings From the Corner of Jazz & Cabaret,” toward Kiki’s nonprofit, The Healing Equine Ranch.
L.A. Jazz Scene recently visited with Clifford Bell about the upcoming event, “Giving Thanks,” set for Nov. 24 at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s. Bell said, “First, this very evening marks the four-year anniversary of the night I first met the extraordinary Kiki Ebsen. Interestingly, by coincidence and not by design, I was producing a benefit for an organization serving the Autism community, and it was in the very same club (formerly Vitello’s, recently reinvented as the elegant ‘Feinstein’s At Vitello’s’).”
On the day that Kiki arrived to join the cast of the show, recommended by Jazz Community Leader, Cathy Segal-Garcia, rarely have I been as gobsmacked by a person I was just meeting. And my admiration just grew and grew as I watched her mastery with the musicians during the sound check, and later in the evening, her charismatic and multifaceted performance when the audience arrived.”
Bell continued, “And my admiration just continues to grow, over the last four years as I have followed her many endeavors, and had her as a guest in many of my shows. However, another reason ‘Giving Thanks’ is so special is that this will be the first time that we’ve actually shared the bill. Knowing how eclectic and versatile her many musical talents are, I’m thrilled to present a show where Ms. Ebsen will have a chance to mix it up between Jazz, Pop, Great American Songbook and her original Singer/Songwriter creations.”
It was also Clifford Bell who discovered the talents of newcomer Katrina Aguilar, a young woman in San Diego whose voice stunned him. Bell said, “Katrina had a very impressive voice and yet she had an unusual sort of haunting quality about her.” After substantial conversation, Bell learned of Katrina’s childhood diagnosis as being on the spectrum of autism. More conversation flowed and a strong friendship ensued.
As Clifford explained, “We started discussing putting a show together and much to my surprise, Katrina had a full story conceived that she wanted to tell about how the music of Disney films was the thing that brought her out of her isolation and made her able to develop a way to communicate with the exterior world. We named the show ‘Part Of Your World,’ based on the song from ‘The Little Mermaid.’ which speaks of a young girl who yearns to be out of her enclosed situation and walk among others in the ‘real’ world. We got immediate press attention and when the show made its debut, she played to a sold-out house and received two standing ovations.”
Deciding to dedicate this fundraiser to furthering autism research, Bell asked Ebsen if she had any special connection to the world of Autism, and she quickly shared her regard for friend Joanne Lara, who’s been a tireless and highly respected journey working in the field.
There’s a beautiful path, marked by the intersection of coincidence and chance that brought Joanne Lara together with Kiki Ebsen over 30 years ago. Joanne came to Los Angeles as a dancer who was studying to be an actress. Kiki, a Los Angeles native, was at the time they met, a popular touring musician, and the two entertainers quickly became good friends.
Ultimately, Joanne successfully transitioned from acting to teaching, and she went back to school to complete master’s certifications to work with special needs students. Her proficiency in this area led to her ultimately founding the nonprofit Autism Works Now, which has attained national prominence. Lara’s ability to increase understanding and awareness for integrating young people with autism into mainstream work life is nothing short of phenomenal. It is with autism movement therapy (AMT) that she benefits young people on the spectrum of autism. Lara’s work extends to a “cognitive whole-brain approach to remapping the brain through movement and music,” music being the common variable in the benefit evening’s theme.
Bell noted, “Once Kiki and I decided to put this show together, our first choices were our mutual friends-Terry Wollman and his wife, singer Melanie Taylor. I recall meeting Terry through Kiki, as he is part of Kiki’s Joni Mitchell Project band, and I’m so glad to have had Terry and Melanie in some recent shows in the past year.”
Wollman is a celebrated producer, composer, arranger and iconic guitarist who has “arranged and composed music for network television, feature films, documentaries, and commercials,” who is also highly regarded for his solo releases, “Silver Connection,” “A Joyful Noise,” “Say Yes,” and “Bimini,” among his discography.
Clifford shared, “Melanie Taylor is a celebrated recording artist whom I was not familiar with until I happened into an evening of about 30 singers (celebrities included) trying to outdo each other, and I’m telling you that time stopped for me when Melanie sang. Not only one of the warmest and most pleasing voices I’d heard in quite a while, but an emotional clarity and authority of lyric that you only get with a truly great singer. In addition to her solo career, Melanie recently returned from an extensive tour with Barry Manilow.”
Continuing, Bell said, “With all of the performers in place, and the charity decided, I thought of the legendary Corky Hale, who had recently been scheduled to appear for me in a show at Catalina Jazz Club, but due to illness she wasn’t able to make it. So, I took a chance and asked her and she instantly accepted. In addition to her many accomplishments as a musician, beginning with her first job as Musical Director for Billie Holiday (while still a teen), Corky is married to Mike Stoller of “Lieber & Stoller,” perhaps the most prolific hit songwriting team in modern musical history.
All artists will be accompanied by Stephan Oberhoff on piano, Paul Morin on bass, Tom Bowe on drums, and Julie Sussman on sax and flute.
Whether it’s a personal commitment to supporting autism research, the work of the vital nonprofit Autism Works Now, or a renewed commitment to give thanks for your blessings, or if you’d just love a beautiful afternoon of beautiful music, surrounded by your family and friends, there’s a multitude of reasons to support “Giving Thanks.” Proceeds will make a genuine impact in teaching pre-employment skills and then finding workplace matches for those who’ve been diagnosed as falling on the spectrum of autism.
Kiki Ebsen noted, “Everyone is busy on and around the holidays, but we are so excited to be bringing you this afternoon of entertainment. We want to give you an opportunity to relax and enjoy your afternoon, taking time for yourself while helping others. The music we’ll bring you comes from our hearts and your support of our event at the beautiful Feinstein’s at Vitello’s venue reflects your hearts as well.”
Tickets range from $25 (two-item minimum) to $100 (VIP seats, brunch, and parking) for the Nov. 24th event at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s. Tickets are available here.
Feinstein’s at Vitello’s is located at 4349 Tujunga Ave., Studio City, CA 91604.