The New York Pops will present a concert at Carnegie Hall like no other November 13, when its 78-piece orchestra celebrates groundbreaking Black women jazz artists. Led by music director and conductor Steven Reineke, Sophisticated Ladies will feature Montego Glover, Capathia Jenkins and Sy Smith.
The concert pays tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington and ultimately commemorates the centennial year of the birth of Billie Holiday – who played Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1948, at age 33, to a sold-out crowd. She returned eight years later to perform two more concerts before packed audiences. Holiday’s career has illustrated her musical sophistication as noted by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis for Time/Life’s “100 Years of Lady Day.”
In its 33rd season, the New York Pops – the largest independent pop orchestra in the United States and the only professional symphonic orchestra specializing in popular music – continues to offer a unique experience with each concert, with influences ranging from Broadway melodies to film scores, jazz, rock, pop and everything in between. This time it is all that jazz, and Reineke has called it “an absolute knockout.”
It means the world to be a part of Sophisticated Ladies and paying tribute to Ella, Sarah, Billie and Dinah. These are icons in music and jazz, and in our culture. The legacy is so grand and huge and continues to give. We reap the benefits of them, Montego Glover said. Each woman has a long and strong legacy in music as icons. In African-American culture particularly, they stand as such examples as icons. The inventiveness and the talent that they use in the rendering in their music is so infectious and relatable but unique. It makes them each unique and one of a kind. They live in their own space.
Capathia Jenkins, who has worked with Glover in Broadway Inspirational Voices, agreed. “I’m really excited about the notion of three Black women today celebrating these Black jazz artists that have come before us. They’re the reason we get to do what we do today. I’m excited about the notion of that. We stood on their shoulders to get here. They each brought a certain thing to the table.”
Each of the guest artists, specifically selected by Reineke, bring a certain thing to the table in their own right.
Glover, a Tony nominee and award-winning artist who made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, is currently starring as “Fantine” in Les Miserables at Imperial Theatre.
“Performing at Carnegie Hall was a bucket list item,” she said, “and now I’m doing it for the second or third time. New York Pops is one of the best pop orchestras in the country. I’m grateful that Les Miserables is allowing me to take time to do it.”
Prior to her current role, Glover co-starred in the original Broadway musical It Shoulda Been You. She originated the starring role of “Felicia Farrell” in the Tony winning Memphis and received a Tony nomination for Lead Actress in a Musical as well as a Drama League nomination; she won Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards.
Jenkins has appeared as a soloist with symphony orchestras nationally and internationally including The Cleveland Orchestra; the Cincinnati and Philly pops orchestras; the National Symphony Orchestra; and the Hong Kong and Calgary philharmonic orchestras. She also is featured on the soundtracks for “Smash” (Seasons 1 and 2), Nine, Chicago, Mission to Mars and Legally Blonde 2. Her Broadway credits include: Newsies; Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me; Caroline, or Change; The Look of Love; and The Civil War. She received a Drama Desk nomination for (mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story.
Sy Smith – who has been a backing vocalist for Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan and Meshelle Ndegeocello, a supporting vocalist on “American Idol,” and part of Rickey Minor’s band on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” as well as the Grammy-nominated Foreign Exchange – is an indie-soul recording artist with four critically acclaimed albums. In September, she garnered an Emmy nod for Best Original Music/Lyrics with “Welcome Back (All My Soulmates)” for the HBO film Dancing. She also received two nominations for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical/Comedy from the NAACP Theatre Awards for her roles in If You Don’t Believe and Body Language.
Broadway Black had the exclusive opportunity to speak with both Glover and Jenkins, who discussed the artists to whom they will pay tribute. Glover said she likens her musical style to Fitzgerald. “I am such an admirer of her. The instrumentality of her voice. She likes to scat across space the way a horn would. The terrific phrasing of music. She took whole lines and beats and made them new every time.” While Jenkins said she is not a scatter herself, she revealed Fitzgerald blows her mind with the way she could scat.
In describing Washington, Glover noted her “sparkly quality, like a wonderful bubble across the music.” Jenkins is inspired by her “raw tone” and that she “was so sure of herself, in her body and who she was.” Yet Jenkins’ feels her most parallel artist is Vaughan, who Glover said “had such a fullness and whimsical nature to her singing.”
“I think of Sarah as hot, molten chocolate,” Jenkins explained. “The tone of her voice is like ‘oh my God.’ She taught me a lot of jazz standards. She is a very kindred spirit to me. I like to learn the ink off the page. I know she was inevitably singing the melody and then makes it her own.”
Just as Holiday recognized “no two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music,” the New York Pops will indeed bring the most sophisticated ladies in jazz to the stage – with Holiday serving as the foundation.
“Billie is the crooner to me. There was a weeping, whining quality in her voice that is enchanting,” Glover admired. “I didn’t understand her at 12 years old the way I do now. What was really behind her singing and her voice and the way the sounds come out of her.”
Influenced by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, Holiday pioneered a vocal style that manipulated phrasing and tempo.
“I’ve never thought of Billie as having great tone or range,” Jenkins admitted, “but the way she can phrase, she can do it conversationally. You can hear everything she had gone through in her life, whatever emotions there were. She sang from her gut. You can’t learn that. It just is. I listen to her for phrasing and truth telling.”
Holiday’s truth consists of much good, bad and ugly. Nevertheless, her legacy is one that proves “nobody sings the word ‘hunger’ like I do or the word ‘love.’”
“It’s going to be a great night,” Jenkins said, “and I’m so excited that the New York Pops has decided to celebrate these great Black women. So let’s sit back and relax and celebrate!”
The two-hour event will begin at 8pm, with one 20-minute intermission. Click HERE for more information about the concert.