By Dee Dee McNeil
November 14, 2021
Lizz Wright is soaked in blues; steeped in gospel and rooted in Americana folk music. With that kind of diversity to her voice and credit, she is also a firm and tenacious deliverer of a jazz repertoire, as will be witnessed this Wednesday, November 17th at 8pm, when she performs with the Count Basie Orchestra directed by Scotty Barnhart. They will be celebrating the music of Ella Fitzgerald at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (The Soraya). This concert will mark the tenth Anniversary celebrating this unique performing arts center on our California State University San Fernando Valley campus site. It will also celebrate eight decades of big band excellence.
I was interested in talking to Lizz Wright about her current journey down the big band path as a guest vocalist with The Count Basie Orchestra. I knew I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, she has worked with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band under the direction of Jim McNeely. She also appeared with the 42-piece London Jazz Festival Orchestra, where she performed tunes from the great American songbook. Lizz Wright is an expert at interpreting lyrics and selling her songs to captivated audiences, be they jazz, R&B, country-sweet or better-blues. Ms. Wright is a unique vocalist, like Nina Simone was. She embraces all manner of musical genres and Lizz Wright makes each song completely her own.
On her “Nearness of You” video, she tagged her song delivery with a few wise words.
“Ella Fitzgerald leaves with us this incredible example of what it really means to be a singer. …You’re standing in front of the band and you have this job to communicate to the people in a way that makes them feel that they’re spoken for. You have an obligation to communicate with the band and really, really know the music. … I love how Ella Fitzgerald … delivered a lyric with such a sense of study and clarity and lightness that you start thinking about what the writer intended. So, as a singer I think we are really enjoying the service of what we do. We’re drawing attention to the songwriters. I always want to know we’re singing in a way that lifts them up and makes the audience and the musicians think about the original poetry of the song. … Even today, when you hear Ella Fitzgerald’s voice ringing across an airport terminal or at a café, wherever it is, it communicates a warmth in that space and a kind of gentleness. … With Ella being the lady of song, every song singer knows her name. She has given us a gift and a catalogue that tells us what’s possible. … She’s a great American gift and a treasure to the world,” Lizz shares her admiration for Ella Fitzgerald and the art of being a songstress.
Lizz Wright is fluid and dynamic singing the “Nearness of You.” Her tribute to Ella Fitzgerald has been viewed more than a million times on her Facebook page. As you probably know, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie were dear friends and that “Ella and Basie!” Album of 1963 is heralded as perhaps one of the most important ever made.
Over the years, this journalist realized that Lizz Wright is clearly empathetic. She learned as a small girl, sporting that big beautiful voice, that music was healing. At six years old, she sang in her father’s church. Before the Hahira, Georgia Minister stepped to his pulpit, young Lizz blessed the congregation with her song. Lizz often performed in retirement homes, where she sang for the elderly and she went to prisons, where she sang to the incarcerated. I was spiritually touched by her “Fellowship” album, released in 2010, that featured both familiar gospel songs, original music and cover tunes.
When Lizz sings, “Love, is sitting on our fingertips, waiting on the edge of our lips, but we don’t know what to say” a song titled “Painted Sky (Don’t Give Up on Us)” that she co-wrote with Maia Sharpe, I pay close attention. It appears on her “Grace” album. While listening to Lizz Wright, I not only hear the warmth and pleading in her delivery, I feel the sincerity and vulnerability in her vocals. This particular song, along with a slew of others, shows us that she is also a prolific songwriter.
This gifted vocalist is someone who can tribute Ella Fitzgerald in one breath and interpret Bob Dylan’s song in the next. I enjoyed her interpretation of his composition, “Every Grain of Sand.” Great folk singer, Odetta, also sang Bob Dylan songs. There are times when Ms. Wright’s voice reminds me of Odetta. She can also interpret R&B songs in her own sweet way. For example, when Lizz Wright puts her magic on the Gladys Knight & the Pips tune, “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” Lizz makes you pay attention to every lyric and every nuance of this R&B hit record. Suddenly, the song becomes reimagined as a folksong and a well-produced tribute to Gladys, a great R&B singer. Listening to the Wright interpretation, I suddenly realize that Lizz has a timbre and range somewhat similar to Gladys. Also, her rich, alto tone sometimes reminds me of Cassandra Wilson. That being said, Ms. Wright has a unique style and sound that is entirely her own. Once you hear her, you will not forget her voice or her presence. I am excited that she is bringing her tone and vocal texture to interpret jazz and celebrate Ella Fitzgerald.
Lizz has recorded with a number of amazing musicians including a great, new, jazz artist on the scene, Grammy Award winning, Gregory Porter. They duet on “Right Where You Are” from the “Freedom & Surrender” Album. Both vocalists display a warmth and believability that relaxes my soul. Their arrangement removes all stress and tension. In fact, I would categorize Lizz Wright as a musical healer. She brings peace and joy with her song deliveries.
Lizz Wright’s voice reaches down into history and exposes traces of African culture, embodying a tradition passed down through generations, from slave quarters to Christian churches; from Motown to Bob Dylan Americana; from Jimi Hendrix blues of the nineteen-sixties to Nina Simone’s remarkable, timeless impression on music culture.
Wright’s music allows us to feel comfortable, as though we’re curled up on our couch at home. It’s easy to become emotionally connected to her songs. On Wednesday, Nov 17th, she will perform with one of the greatest Jazz Orchestra’s in the world. Count Basie’s Orchestra has been active and touring for the past eighty-years. Ms. Wright joins a long list of amazing celebrities who have been guest vocalists including Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Ledisi, Carmen Bradford, Billie Holiday, Joe Williams, Nnenna Freelon, Kurt Elling, Melba Joyce, Stevie Wonder & Ray Charles to list just a few. If you are available this Wednesday, I suggest you treat yourself to this historic concert by the 18-Grammy-Award-winning Count Basie Orchestra featuring the fabulous Lizz Wright as they present a warm and wonderful tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.
* * * * * * * * * *
Bobby Saxon has a mission. He wants to play piano for the Booker ‘Boom-Boom’ Taylor Orchestra (read big band), the house band at the famous Club Alabam on Central Avenue in the heart of Los Angeles during World War II. But there’s a problem: he’s young and he’s white. So if he gets the gig he’d be the only white player in the otherwise all-black band. That’s not the only thing standing in his way. In order to get the gig he must first solve a murder that one of the band members has been accused of. And if that’s not enough there’s another big thing standing in his way…but you’ll have to read the book to find that one out.
Los Angeles—The Homefront, World War II
Bobby Saxon stood across Central Avenue from the Club Alabam, watching the crowds spilling into the street, lingering on the sidewalk. A near-lone white face in a sea of black. Dragging on his cigarette, trying to steady his nerves, he watched the people in their swanky duds entering and exiting the club, working up his nerve to go inside. Sure, he’d been in the Alabam before, but this time was different. He wasn’t there just to see the bands blow and the canaries sing.
Everyone played the Alabam, or wanted to, including Bobby. Young, inexperienced—white—he knew he could knock ’em dead, if only Booker Taylor, one of the band leaders, would give him a chance.
Central Avenue was something to see. The heart of colored Los Angeles in the forties during the war. And at the heart of Central was the Club Alabam, and the Dunbar Hotel next door. Neon marquees lit up the night sky, beckoning passersby to enter their realms of music and mystery and see the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and every other colored act you could imagine.
Cars, with their bright white headlights and trailing hot red taillights, crawled like lifeblood up and down the avenue. Cigarette smoke wafted in and out of the clubs, wrapping around streetlights, forming halos in the L.A. fog, creating an ethereal world—another world. And it was another world from most of L.A. and the L.A. Bobby grew up in. A world that Bobby would have sacrificed almost anything to be part of.
He darted into traffic, dodging oncoming Buicks and Fords and Pontiacs. He brushed past people dressed to the nines, ladies in furs and heels, gentlemen in tuxes and fashionable suits. Even zoot suits. They strolled and strutted up and down the street like peacocks showing their finest feathers, ducking in and out of the clubs and restaurants. They smoked cigarettes from beautifully crafted holders. He strolled to the front door, made his way inside. Smoke wafted up and through the palm tree decor as Ruby, the hostess, recognized Bobby and gave him a ringside seat. She knew he was hep, even though he didn’t drink. The two-dollar tip didn’t hurt his getting that good seat either. He ordered Bubble Up and grooved on the Booker “Boom-Boom” Taylor Orchestra—only in this case orchestra meant one hot jazz big band.
Bobby’s foot tapped out the beat as he eyed the dance floor. Black couples. White couples. Coloreds and whites dancing together. One of the few places in L.A. you could do that and not walk away with your head in your hands. Whites from all over Los Angeles—even movie stars—came to hear the bands, cut a rug, and maybe get a little crazy. And though there might be some coloreds or whites who would look on disapprovingly, mostly no one cared.
Bobby watched set after set, tap-tap-tapping and smoking butt after butt of Viceroys. “Thank you, thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” Booker’s voice boomed from the stage mic. “We’ll be back after a short break. Have a drink and enjoy!”
The jam-packed dance floor emptied as the jitterbugs scattered back to their tables or the bar. Bobby stood, ready to make his move. He scooted through the narrow lanes between the closely placed tables, through the crowd, dodging drunken dancers. He wanted to catch Booker wherever he might land between sets, maybe on stage, maybe in the hall leading to the dressing rooms. Before he could, Booker snapped his head in Bobby’s direction, crooked his finger at him.
“Me?” Bobby mimed.
Bobby climbed onto the stage as the rest of the band departed. Just being on the Alabam’s stage with Booker was enough to make his heart pound out prestissimo time, even if he wasn’t playing with the band. At over six feet, Booker towered over Bobby. Up close Bobby could see the fine line of Booker’s moustache, the longish, slicked-back, processed hair. He envied Booker’s threads—the draped, broad-shouldered double-breasted suit, the pleated pants and fine, lilac silk scarf. But the most striking thing about him, besides his baritone voice, were those piercing eyes. Bobby felt those eyes burning a hole in his skin.
“You’re up here every night, kid. Every night all alone. What’s up?”
“I dig the music.”
“You dig the music. Jungle bunny music?”
Jungle bunny rolled so easily off Booker’s tongue. Bobby had heard it before and was surprised to hear Booker use such a negative word, even if he had said it sarcastically. “I didn’t come down here to jive you.”
Booker stared at Bobby through several puffs of his cigarette in a sleek, ebony holder. Bobby wanted to squirm or scram; held himself in check. Finally, Booker said, “Let’s go to my office.”
Bobby actually believed Booker had an office at the back of the club. Booker’s office was the alley behind it, lit by a few bare bulbs swathed in fog, shadowy and creepy. Like something out of a Universal horror movie—Dracula, Frankenstein—that Bobby might have seen when he was a kid, not all that long ago. Several band members hung out there, talking, smoking, drinking. Bobby heard a grunt. Turned to see a couple screwing in a semi-dark doorway a few feet up.
He didn’t know what he’d gotten himself into. What if Booker pulled a knife on him? He swallowed it down, though his father’s warning about coming to this part of town with these people nagged at him. He was scared, but he couldn’t show it. He was a man now.
Booker fished in his coat pocket, pulled something out. A hand-rolled cigarette, lit up. Offered a hit to Bobby. Bobby didn’t go for it.
“Yeah, kid, reefer. The evil weed. You barely look old enough to drink. Are you old enough for this?” Booker said, inhaling. “You even old enough to be in here?”
“I’m old enough to pound the eighty-eights in a hot jazz band,” Bobby said with all the bravado and self-confidence he could muster. He felt shaky fingers fumble a Viceroy from the pack. He’d been smoking since he was twelve—his hands had never shook before. “You don’t look old enough to stand up to piss.”
“I’m old enough.”
“Hardly even looks like you run a razor over that pearly, baby-smooth skin.” Booker slammed down a long drag, held it. Let the smoke out slowly. “What’re you comin’ down here for anyway? Why don’t you try to get a gig with a white band?”
“I’m here. You wanna let me sit in?”
“Fresh cracker kid. Lemme see your hands.”
Booker grabbed Bobby’s hands. Ran his long dark fingers over them. Bobby hoped Booker wouldn’t feel them shaking.
“Give me a shot, you’ll see how soft.”
“You know, Herb Jeffries is going to do a couple tunes next set—heard of him?”
“The Bronze Buckaroo. I love cowboy movies.”
“You come down to Central to see colored cowboy movies?”
“By myself.” Against his father’s wishes, like so many other things he did.
“You got more balls than I thought, kid. All right, Herb’s gonna sing ‘Flamingo,’ know it?”
“He’s also gonna sing ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.’ If you can tell me what that song’s really about, you can sit in.”
Bobby shuffled his feet. He knew the answer, at least he thought he did. He wasn’t sure if he should say it, if it was a trick question. “I know it’s not about a flower.”
“C’mon, kid, we don’t got all day.”
“The yellow rose in the song is a light-skinned colored woman, a high yellow woman. Do I pass?”
“All right, kid, we got no eighty-eight man tonight. You can sit in. If the audience throws shit—well you know.” Booker took a last drag on his jive stick, pinched it out between his finger and thumb and put it back in his pocket. He headed inside, followed by Bobby and the band.
Bobby’s eyes adjusted to the dusky Alabam light and stinging smoke. He started to push the piano into a position where it would be part of the band. No one offered to help. Booker nodded at a couple of horn players. They leisurely walked to the piano, pushed and heaved until it was in place. Bobby thanked them, limbered his fingers. Booker looked over to him, shot him a wink of encouragement. Before he could get fully situated on the bench, the band launched into “Take the A Train.” The dance floor filled. The rhythm insinuated itself deep inside him. Every inch of him pulsed with it. He joined in with the band. Butterflies jumped in his stomach as he tried to play Duke Ellington’s part half as good as the Duke. But his fingers stopped shaking. He hit the keys with joy and passion. Nobody left the floor. Nobody threw anything. Nobody paid much attention to the single white face among all the black faces in the band, the one person, besides Booker, not in the band uniform of white jacket, dark slacks, bow tie. Everyone applauded at the end of the number.
“And now ladies and gentlemen, as our usual vocalist, the sweet Loretta Martin, isn’t with us tonight, we have a special guest. Mr. Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo. The Sepia Singing Cowboy. The song stylist who, with Duke Ellington, made ‘Flamingo’ his own.”
Jeffries sauntered on stage. A handsome man, over six feet tall, who truly did look bronzed. The crowd went wild.
“Thank you,” Jeffries said in his rich, deep voice. Booker’s hand swung on the downbeat and the band launched into “Flamingo.” Bobby played along. He knew the song well. People crowded the stage to watch the singer. Others slow-danced, close and tight. The band was smooth. Jeffries spectacular with his beautiful baritone. And Bobby knew he was doing more than a serviceable job winging it. Booker glanced his way, gave him a quick grin. Bobby shot him a hasty salute. The crowd swelled and rose like a tidal wave, in a wild frenzy for the music. When the song ended, a hush fell over the room as Jeffries launched into “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
The song over, Jeffries took his bows and left the stage. Booker looked at Bobby. Bobby knew what that meant—his turn in the spotlight. Staring into a follow spot like a deer in headlights, he didn’t know what to do. Then he whipped into Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” banging away on the ivories. The crowd surged. Danced. Jitterbugs bopped to the music. Booker smiled, impressed. He looked to the band. They nodded while continuing to play—this kid could really blow.
Bobby dove deep into the music, swam with it. It was part of him, one with him. His thoughts were hardly conscious as he grooved to the beat. Fell in with the rhythm. This was the only place he wanted to be. Nothing else existed at this moment.
The number over, Booker motioned to Bobby to take a bow. Sheened with sweat, he stood and looked out at the crowd. The applause deafened him but made him happier than he’d ever been. The applause died and the band went back to its set. Bobby knew all the songs and played along just fine. When the set was over, drained and wiped out, Bobby went to the bar and ordered a Bubble Up.
“On the house,” the bartender said. “Good set.”
“Lawrence.” He put his hand out and Bobby shook it. The man squeezed hard. He wasn’t much taller than Bobby but he had the handshake of a hard man. The slicing scar over his left eye confirmed it.
Booker came up behind Bobby. “Welcome aboard.”
Bobby tried to maintain his composure, his cool. He hoped it was working.
“You look spooked, man,” Booker said, “and that ain’t a word one should be using in this joint.”
“Just taken aback.”
“They like you, man.”
“I got the gig?” Bobby was giddy. He only half-expected to get the spot, no matter how good he might be. Booker had never had a white player before. Bands weren’t integrated, except for Lionel Hampton with Benny Goodman. This was almost a first.
“Yours, at least on a trial basis. We’ll see how it works out for both of us. But when I said welcome aboard, I meant it. Tonight’s our last night at the Alabam for a few weeks.”
Excerpted from THE BLUES DON’T CARE Copyright © 2020 by Paul D. Marks Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.