In 1957, two iconic female jazz singers appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival – within two days of each other.
These two singers – Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday – approached their craft and their music very differently, and were at very different places in their careers. But the recording that renowned producer Norman Granz made of those Newport performances has become a classic.
Now three Ottawa jazz vocalists will recreate the repertoire of those concerts at a show at the NAC Fourth Stage on Saturday, April 6, bringing back some of the greatest vocal hits of the era.
But it will be the songs, not the singers, that they'll be showcasing. As concert organizer Karen Oxorn emphasizes, neither she nor Nicole Ratté nor Dominique Forest will try to sound like Fitzgerald or Holiday – even if it were possible.
In 1957, Fitzgerald was at the peak of her career, in complete control of her full, flexible voice and with an unparalleled ability to scat on songs like “Airmail Special”. Holiday, on the other hand, was only two years away from her death, and already her singing lacked the strength of her prime. And a third singer, Carmen McRae, who also appeared that July weekend and whose songs are also included on the album, was a protégé of Holiday and a recently-established star.
This will be the third Fourth Stage concert Oxorn has organized in tribute to jazz vocalists – first Blossom Dearie in 2010 and then Peggy Lee in 2011. All three Ottawa singers are well-known on both sides of the Ottawa River. They have all appeared at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and each has a busy programme of restaurant and club dates.
OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor sat down with all three vocalists in March to talk about how the concert came about and what the audience can expect to hear, as well as the special tribute to the late Ottawa Jazz Festival programming director Jacques Émond, which they will include in the concert. This an edited version of the conversation.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How would you describe this concert to a potential listener?
Nicole Ratté: I would start by saying what it's about. It's an Ella and Billie tribute to the Newport concerts. But then I'd quickly jump into the complicity of us three vocalists, and how interesting it is to see the different personalities, and voice colours, and styles, while our voices go well together.
Dominique Forest: I have to touch upon what Nicole has said. I think folks will get a snapshot in time, certainly, but it will have our individual stamp on it. At the same time, you'll get a sense for the respect we have for one another and the genuine friendship that there is between us. The camaraderie is quite evident, and for some, it may be quite palpable.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Karen, what inspired you to create this concert?
Karen Oxorn: I have done two concerts at the Fourth Stage now, in collaboration with other local female singers, and I wanted to do another one. And I had long been interested in collaborating with these two ladies.
We wanted to find another singer or singers to pay tribute to, which is something I had established with the first two shows. We did some brainstorming and came up initially with the idea of Ella and Billie – who, of course, are two singers who can easily deserve their own tribute in their own right.
But that made it easier, because we narrowed it down in terms of repertoire, and then we came up with this idea to do the homage to the Newport festival concerts as our hook.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you learn about the Newport recording? Did you already have a copy of it?
Karen Oxorn: No, I didn't know anything about it. When Nicole and I got together at one point back when I was originally going to do it in 2012 but, for personal reasons, couldn't go ahead, and had to give up that date, we were throwing out names. What about like Julie London? What about Betty Carter? We came up with lots of different names, as I recall. Then, we came up with Ella and Billie.
So I went on the Internet to just start to do research on the two of them, and by putting both of them in Wikipedia at the same time, up came the website for this whole album, which was the live recordings from the successive concert dates recorded in 1957. I proposed it, and we liked it.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Now, Ella apparently sang on July 4th and Billie sang on July 6th. Do you know if they ever actually met at the festival?
Karen Oxorn: I don't know. I'm hoping to do a little bit of research to find out a little bit more of those back stories. I'm guessing from the way we see these festivals go, that probably not.
Imitation scares me a little bit, especially when you have voices as big and incredible as those of these two women. I think you can really fall on your behind if you choose to imitate.
– Dominique Forest
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Which of the two singers is the bigger challenge to interpret?
Karen Oxorn: Gosh, I think we could all speak to that. For me, Ella is the first jazz singer that I became acquainted with when I got interested in vocal jazz as a listener in the early '80's. I find her very, very accessible.
I didn't like Billie Holiday when I first got into music. And friends of mine were just shocked to think that I didn't connect with Billie Holiday, who I do so much now. I guess for me, she would be slightly harder one to interpret. Of course, we're going to be doing our own spin on the songs, as opposed to too much reflection on their personal styles.
There are one or two songs we're doing where I think the hommage to the singer really comes out more than others. I would say, probably for me, it's Billie.
Dominique Forest: I wouldn't say, in a sense of preference, because to identify one singer over the other seems like minimizing the importance and the relevance of both or of either. I would say the quality in Ella is just the fluidity with which she sings. It's unmistakable. It's really unparalleled in so many different ways. Her ability, and the fluidity with which she scatted.
I think the elements that I really like about Billie Holiday is the melancholy nature of her voice. That, too, is unmistakable and is all her own. I think the only other singer that has that kind of melancholy for me would be Chet Baker. I would compare the two of them as far as just the sorrow in the voice.
Nicole Ratté: Of course for me it's easier to relate to Ella's singing, because she has a happy atmosphere about her songs. I listened more to Ella than Billie. I'm very attracted to Ella's singing and Ella's songs because it's so happy.
I would say that it took me a while before I started listening to Billie and being able to appreciate what's so special about her. It got to me eventually, but her atmosphere is far from me.
In that sense, for me, it's harder to relate to her but it's growing all the time, of course. She's such an example of what is so important in singing and interpreting a song – which is to touch, just feel the song. She's just the image of that, specifically.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: With the Blossom Dearie concert, you made a point of not sounding like Blossom Dearie. Will you be doing that again in this concert: singing the songs as songs, rather than singing them as they interpreted them?
Karen Oxorn: I think that's really our intention, to have our individual interpretations. We're definitely going to be presenting ourselves. I've had a few people who have ordered tickets and, in the e-mail, they always say things like, “Now which one are you, Ella or Billie?”, and that kind of fun thing, which has been really amusing. But I think we all agree that we're not trying to imitate them.
On the other hand, there might be some inflections in our own voices that might be naturally similar. Our musical director, Mark Ferguson, has always teasingly called me "a Little Ella," because when we first started working together, he heard that. Like all singers, you start out learning how to sing, if you're learning by ear, with a fair degree of imitation. So Ella was my first inspiration. We used to listen to her where I worked all day long. Even though we were supposed to be playing classical music, we played Ella from all the Verve Songbooks.
So I think we're really going to stay away from that. There are one or two tunes where we're probably going to go toward, certainly not imitation, but the spirit of those two particular songs, but otherwise, it's our own take.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: For those one or two tunes: now, Ella in 1957 wasn't necessarily Ella in 1940. For Billie Holiday, this was only two years to the month before she died. In terms of, not channeling, but being aware of these concerts, how do you handle that? How do you make sure you're talking about the historical period?
Karen Oxorn: I think it's probably easiest to say that using the 1957 Newport recordings and those concerts as a bit of a hook is not to say we're going to be delving into what was happening at those times. We'll certainly make reference to it.
As far as Billie Holiday goes, it's not a good album. You hear – Dominique is talking about the melancholy in her voice – well, here the woman is near the end of her life, her singing is not good, yet through it all, the interpretation is still so powerful. We're not going to really be speaking to that musically so much so we might make reference to it in the stage discussion.
Also, there's a third person in this show who appears on the album and had a third concert [on July 5, 1957]. That's Carmen McRae. We're doing some of her repertoire. It's very interesting to contrast two seasoned performers, one who was at a really tough point in her life, versus Carmen McRae at the pretty much beginning of her career, in terms of being well known, and the very different energy, especially in terms of how she talks on stage.
Dominique Forest: I listened to the recordings quite a lot to familiarize myself not only with the repertoire, but with the period of time. I think, especially in the case of Billie and Ella, it is very indicative of the different trajectories that their lives had taken at that point.
Ella was at her peak. If anything, she was getting better, and better, and better. The recording of "Airmail Special" is just unbelievable. Her scatting for that song in particular, it's mind-boggling that she was able to do that with such precision. Just unbelievable precision.
Whereas, Billie, she's having a hard time. She's really having a significant time, it seems from the recordings, just having her voice project. It's a bit painful to listen to, not because she's not interpreting appropriately, but just because you know what the story is. You know how the story ends. For that reason, it's quite a compelling recording to listen to.
Nicole Ratté: I so agree with Dominique. I would add that Billie, even though she has a hard time singing, it touches me more than some of her previous recordings just because of that. It goes straight to my heart.
You cannot not be touched by her singing, even though if you listen to it with your head – yeah. It makes me think of that recording of Chet Baker, "My Funny Valentine", at the end of his life. His voice was not great, but it was a fantastic interpretation, so touching. That's the same feeling I had when I listen to Billie's voice. But as you said, Ella was just in top shape.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: You mentioned Ella's scatting. Are you going to try to do that?
Nicole Ratté: We don't want to imitate Ella, at all. If there will be a little bit of scatting, it's just going to be very slightly. One song, or something like that. Not really. We listened to “Airmail Special” and decided that, not this year (laughter).
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How many of the songs on the album are you actually going to be doing in the concert?
Karen Oxorn: We're doing 20 songs in the repertoire. Most of them are from the album. As Nicole said, we're not going to do "Airmail Special", but, as Dominique said, it's so impressive. We don't want to tarnish that.
There was one song in Billie's repertoire [on the CD], “My Man”, which is a wonderful song. We didn't really want to sing the lyric that came with that, talking about how a man beats her and all this kind of stuff in the verse.
It's not that we have to have the whole thing be happy and upbeat the whole time. We're reflecting that, for sure. But, we do have the melancholy in there. We have some ballads that are very heartfelt.
What we decided to do, because we wanted to make sure that we had something complete, was we each looked for one or two songs that we really identified with by each of these two singers that was, yes, outside of the repertoire of the album. But we decided not to force ourselves to have to be so faithful to it. We're doing, I would say, 75% of the [album], then a few things that are very signature to the two singers, that we want to include.
Then, of course, our song for Jacques Émond, which is outside of the repertoire of the show, completely.
Jacques Émond, for me, was the difference. His encouragement and the opportunity he gave me made the difference for me. It really was, maybe not the start button, but the turning point.
– Nicole Ratté
OttawaJazzScene.ca: The song you're doing for Jacques, is it to be a song that one of those singers did, or is it completely separate?
Dominique Forest: The song we've chosen to do, of course we won't divulge that, but we've given it quite a bit of thought. As we were discussing doing this show, we learned about Jacques' passing. And it became an instant thought to send an e-mail to say, "My goodness, ladies, don't you think we should?"
I think he's been truly instrumental in giving each one of us a shot. We've all had several shows at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival as a result of his encouragement. We really wanted to pay homage to him in a way that was particular to us, and that would be reflective of our thoughts and feelings about him, and our care and consideration of his care and consideration toward us.
Nicole Ratté: Jacques Émond, for me, was the difference. His encouragement and the opportunity he gave me made the difference for me. It really was, maybe not the start button, but the turning point.
Indeed, we wanted to have a song would carry the right atmosphere, and that would leave us a lot of room in the interpretation and the way we're going to serve it to the audience.
Dominique Forest: We actually had quite a few different ideas, and we finally settled on one that I think is quite appropriate. In the preparation, we asked for some assistance for some of the treatments from Kieran Milne, who was the musical director of Big Band Caravane. His assistance has been wonderful.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you pick who sang which songs? Did you fight about it?
Nicole Ratté: The first draft was done by Karen about who would sing which song, and it was amazing! (Addressing Oxorn) I don't know if you really thought a long time about it, but it was right to the point. And the songs fit well with each of us. It's really amazing.
We just had one switch, and that's it. Even then, it would have been OK if we hadn't switched. It was easy, really easy. For me, working with these two vocalists is really fun. For me, it's a very nice experience, and I must add that these two voices are my favorite (laughter).
Dominique Forest: If I could, there is a bit of a mutual admiration society. There truly, truly is. The very, very, very first show I did, Karen Oxorn was present. And I still remember where she was sitting. I remember the fellows I was playing with introducing me to her, not knowing who she was, and finding out that evening that she was a fellow singer.
I'm sure I thought it was wonderful. That same month, Nicole had come, as well. I still remember the table you were sitting at too. It was at the Cock and Lion, long, long ago. From that point on, we've been friends – either, sending gigs to one another or collaborating on certain things.
I certainly know that occasionally Nicole has brought Karen on stage. I know I've done the same. We just genuinely enjoy each other's company. So, this experience, I would do over again. It's been an absolute joy, and very easy. There are no egos. We're just enjoying the preparation time.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: I was wondering, for each of you, are there any of songs that you'll be singing that particularly speak to you?
Dominique Forest: Absolutely. I think there are a few of them. Nicole mentioned that Karen selected the songs. She really did get it bang on.
There are a few of the songs I'm doing that are new to me and new to my repertoire, but I'm so pleased to do them. There's either a particular joyfulness about them that resonates with me. There's at least one other I'm thinking of, more of a ballad, that speaks to me for many reasons.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Can you tell me the name of one?
Dominique Forest: I guess I'll divulge one of them. I'll be performing "I'll Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter". Without getting into a significant amount of detail, that particular song resonates with me very much. That's one for me.
Nicole Ratté: Me, too. Several of the songs really talk to me. I've discovered songs that, after the first listening, I wasn't very attracted to, but I became. I love them now. I'm really happy to sing them. I sing them all over, everywhere.
There's one song that Karen picked that is on my album. I was glad about that. It's "I've Got a Crush on You". I was happy that that song is on the show. I really feel close to that song.
That first rehearsal at Mark Ferguson's place: it was so nice. I was sitting and listening to these lovely voices. It was such a great moment for me. The atmosphere. I could have sat there for hours and hours listening to them.
Karen Oxorn: I will be very honest in saying that the way I chose the songs for each person was to start with, to me, the undeniable assignment of that song to Nicole, because, as she mentioned, it's on her album.
Then, I went to ones that I particularly liked first, with the notion that if anybody else wanted them, that would be fine. And then, I looked at things where I know their repertoire, I know their style. But, at some point, it was more casual than that. And that was the first draft.
Both Dominique and Nicole assured me that they liked that. I had had ideas of ways that we could practice before to then make changes. But we never really changed much until that first practice with Nicole and Dominique at Mark's.
Nicole had one song that she wasn't sure about and I had one that I didn't really have any allegiance to, and we switched. I'm very much looking forward to doing some more-associated-with-Ella numbers, because I, too, relate to her upbeat style.
But I'm doing "Willow Weep for Me". I think that came to me from a switch. It was with Dominique, that's right, because she had another song that she really identified with. So, I said well, I'd take that one. It's not one that was in my repertoire, except maybe once or twice in a show. And so I was very happy to do that.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: In terms of structuring the concert, are you going to be doing any duos or trios?
Nicole Ratté: Yes. We're going to have some. Not that many, but a couple of trios. Trios, no duos. The songs did not really lend well [to duos]. But, there will be some good moments with the three of us.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What has Mark Ferguson brought in as musical director? What is he adding to the show?
Karen Oxorn: This is going to be the third Fourth Stage concert with him as our musical director. We've all worked with him pretty regularly over the years of our careers.
Working with him initially is extremely collaborative. He doesn't shy away from offering an opinion, but he's not dictatorial about it, by any means. He really helps us hone things.
I got together with him first and brought all the sheet music, and he made some changes to improve the chords, and that kind of stuff, so that when we all go together for our first group meeting and rehearsal, we were ready. So he brings suggestions. It was really in discussion with him that we dropped "Airmail Special" after I proposed it to Nicole and Dominique, because it just wasn't sounding very interesting. Now, maybe the three of us would have made it more interesting, but when I did it, that's how it sounded.
Then, the night of our Peggy Lee concert, in particular, which is the second one we did with him, he really took charge of things. We had a great meeting just before we went on stage where he went through all the charts with all of us, made sure that the special things assigned to people were acknowledged, got us all together, and then leads the show so impeccably and performs so impeccably. He really brings it all together, I would say.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Because of his experience with having played with so many other female singers? It gives you reassurance?
Dominique Forest: It's Mark. There's no other way to say it. He works with the majority, if not all, of the singers in town, and there's good reason for that. He's excellent. He supports you in just the manner you need to be supported, at just the right time. You truly feel like you have your wing man.
Nicole Ratté: Indeed. Mark, it's hard to get better. He's such a lovely person. It's easy to work with him. It feels right, and on the right track.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: The original recordings just had bass, piano, and drums, and you're actually adding a saxophonist and a guitarist. Why are you doing that? What will this add to the music?
Nicole Ratté: What it does is it gives the opportunity to Mark to leave the piano and so we can have a harmonic instrument doing the job. It opens an opportunity for Mark to leave the piano once in a while.
Dominique Forest: It also changes the instrumentation of certain songs so we'll be able to punctuate certain melodies differently. It gives us that room for movement.
Karen Oxorn: I'm really hoping that, when we have our band practice, we'll really see good opportunities for some collaboration in the instruments, even though with this much material and three vocalists, obviously we're not going to have a heavy amount of [instrumental] soloing.
There's one song, in fact, that I want to identify with Nicole and Dominique that I'm going to maybe start vocally and then have the guys blow on it. I'd love to see Mark and Mike Tremblay, who work so much together, do some soloing together. So Mark can leave the piano, Tim [Bedner] can take over the chord instrument, and we're covered that way.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: For all three of you: has preparing for this concert changed your view of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and how they sang? Has concentrating on their music given you more appreciation of what they did?
Karen Oxorn: I think for me, it has in a small degree in terms of, as Dominique has said, listening to that recording over and over again to learn the repertoire. Again, we're not going to try to replicate their style, but to see some of their approaches to it.
Then, also to listen more to the patter between the vocalists and the accompanists. This comes out more with Ella and her band, or even the announcer – to just see how they carried stuff off.
Mark pointed out to me, and I didn't hear it too much, in the song that Dominique is going to do, "I'm Going to Sit Down and Write Myself a Letter", at one point, [Ella] is not hearing that it's the next song. Listen to it again if you didn't notice it, because I didn't until he pointed it out. The piano player is trying to say to her, “the next song is this, the next song is this”, and she's going “What, what?”. They're not communicating. And then, at the point when you think he's going to have to stop and start over, she slides right into the song without skipping a beat.
It's really quite humorous, but to me, indicative of the fact that she really was the consummate performer. Some of the way she presented the material, yes I've heard it before. We don't always have completely original things to say every time. We get our patter down and we recycle it, sometimes.
But I found that it gave me new appreciation for her ease with an audience, her ease with a band, and how effortlessly charming she was on stage. Again, it wasn't a surprise, but I really appreciated it.
With Billie, I guess hearing how she could still pull it off. Again, we're taking inspiration from an album that has some problems to it because of her state of health, but really appreciating how she pulled it together.
Dominique Forest: The short answer is absolutely. I have a new appreciation for both artists. For Ella, it's her mastery. I was familiar with her recordings in various stages in her life. I think the Newport recordings really gave me a sense of what a gifted woman she is, and what an instrument her voice truly was and is.
Where Billie Holiday is concerned, I have an absolute appreciation for the sheer perseverance. Her ability, despite all odds, to step up on that stage, to deliver a performance to the best of her ability. I don't know if it was out of sheer will, but certainly her perseverance is to be noted, given all that we know of her life story.
Nicole Ratté: Yes. For me, too. I have a new kind of understanding. It gives me more of a sense of who these two vocalists are. Yes, it makes a difference, it makes a big difference. I find that it inspires me to be listening to Billie and Ella. Of course, it's very inspiring. But, working with Karen and Dominique is inspiring, too. Very inspiring. In that sense, I find it's a very rich project that I'm happy to do.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: It's been more than 50 years since this concert, and singing styles have changed. Do you find that will be add a frisson of interest to it? Or, will that be a challenge?
Karen Oxorn: I think that's really the important foundation for why we're not trying to sing the way they sang. As much as I love some of what Ella does in the show, the patter and the humor and everything, it isn't really a contemporary interpretation that appeals to me, and I don't think Dominique or Nicole would disagree.
So I think, from my point of view for how I'm going to be presenting it, it will be a little more spare than some of the treatments as they appear on the album of the songs I'll be doing. I don't know that it's going to be so different, in terms of the general style of singing. They're standards. They've come down to us after all these many years.
The instrumentalists will probably have some good treatments of them that will go outside the box more so. There are one or two songs where I'm going to try to do a little bit of scatting, or the second time through, do a little bit of variation, possibly even some of the lyrics that I use.
There's one song that I have that I'm doing, that's a very special song to me that I'm going to have some different lyrics for. We have some lyrics, if I can say, that go along with the song we're doing for Jacques.
Nicole Ratté: I think we just sing in our usual style. As for myself, I just take the song and do what I feel with it. Right there, I sing it with who I am. Right there, it takes my colour.
As Karen was saying, the musicians are going to add their own colours, too. For sure, it's not going to sound like it's an old... For one of my songs, we've done a special arrangement I'm very excited about that wasn't on the recording. Right there, it's going to be different.
Dominique Forest: Imitation scares me a little bit, especially when you have voices as big and incredible as those of these two women. I think you can really fall on your behind if you choose to imitate.
But what we should do, and what I know the three of us will do, is we will add whatever colour and flavour to these songs, and do precisely what these two women did with them. They interpreted them in their manner, given the inflection of their voices, and the beauty they could bring to it.
I guess in summary, Nicole, Karen, and I are going to deliver them in the very best way that we know how, and the way we choose to.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: So, are you looking forward to it?
Karen Oxorn: Yes! Very excited. We've done the major work, so now we can focus on the music.
Dominique Forest: Yes. I am looking forward to it, up until the morning of Sunday, April 7th, where I think there will be a bit of a dip when I realize that it's over. It's been so much fun to date.
Nicole Ratté: I'm so very much looking forward to it, and indeed, the journey is really fun. It's really nice to collaborate with Dominique and Karen. I have ideas, too, for further collaboration projects that can be fun. For maybe next year. We'll see. We can talk about that. Yes. Plant the seed.