In the ’50s, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald was on the top of her game, performing everything from bebop with Dizzy Gillespie to opera with The Mikado. Singer Patti Austin said that this spectrum-spanning of American song made “The Queen of Jazz” a star of pop.
“She was the Katy Perry of her time,” Austin said.
At 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater, Austin will be performing a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, taking the Duke Ellington Orchestra along with her in the show “Patti Austin Live at Duke’s Place.”
Although she has much experience with Fitzgerald‘s music and Ellington’s band, Austin promised her audience that no two `shows are alike. That’s due largely in part to Grammy-winning Austin and her personality.
But it’s more the songs themselves, Austin said, that are being celebrated with the singer — Fitzgerald — who first popularized them.
Fitzgerald, often called the “First Lady of Song,” was as versatile as she was “shy,” Austin said. Fitzgerald first became known in 1939 with her children’s novelty “A Tisket, A Tasket,” rode the bebop phenomenon in the ’40s and “went serious” in the ’50s with her Cole Porter recordings. The fact that Fitzgerald “could sing anything,” Austin said, made her a great influence.
DUKE ELLINGTON ORCHESTRA
“For me, she was the greatest all-purpose singer ever,” Austin said. “There was something about her voice that resonated with me — that sound, that tone, that vibrato. … And she could stay true to the genre but always put ‘Ella’ into it.”
Ever since Austin was 3 years old, she said Fitzgerald’s been with her in some way. Austin would wake up in her childhood bed to her father’s record player blaring Fitzgerald’s recordings of “Mack the Knife” or “Mr. Paganini (You’ll Have To Swing It),” among others.
Her father, Gordon Austin, a former jazz trombonist, didn’t stop with “The Queen” Ella, but would play Duke Ellington, Ivan Stravinsky and Big Mama Thornton, influencing his daughter’s future genre-spanning style of artistry.
Austin said he’s part of the reason for her own “all-purpose” approach to singing.
“I grew up thinking that music was this wonderful tapestry of really cool stuff,” she said. “So I never limited myself to singing a specific kind of music — generally speaking, it has served me pretty well.”
Just like Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington, Austin follows well this American-songbook breadth in her repertoire. Once known as the “Queen of the Jingles,” Austin started out in a career voicing advertisement tunes — something Fitzgerald also dabbled in — and as a session musician, but catapulted into mainstream jazz and R&B in the ’80s.
Her biggest hits have mostly been duets, like her 1981 “Baby, Come Home to Me” with James Ingram, and her work with Michael and Janet Jackson. In the last decade, Austin looked mostly to big names in jazz, releasing For Ella in 2002 and a Grammy-winning tribute to Gershwin in 2007.
Like her lodestar Fitzgerald, Austin said that following in her shoes is somewhat difficult, as “Ella cannot really be duplicated” anyway. Austin simply sees her tribute today as “going into Ella’s closet,” trying on several outfits, seeing which ones fit, which ones “needed to be tailored.”
Being backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, now led by Ellington’s grandson Paul Mercer Ellington, Austin will be “wearing” songs of a big band, swing tradition. Other than songs written by the Duke himself, Austin, channeling Fitzgerald, said she is sure to bring the “First Lady of Song” to the stage, putting a little bit of “Patti” into it as well.