When her daughter was a toddler, Temperence Fitzgerald would walk down Wickham Ave. in Newport News to her job as a maid. While doing so, she would pass a building housing the segregated Walter Reed School, knowing her little girl, Ella, would never be welcome there.
How could she even fathom that, decades later, that very same building would house a theater named after the young girl who would become one of the most renowned masters at performing from the Great American Songbook, and whose legacy would be celebrated there every year at a festival honoring her contributions to the arts, as well as her roots.
The 20th Annual Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival (AKA Ella Fest) returns to the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center on April 20 and 27 with artists sure to do her work justice.
“It’s a celebration of a native daughter,” said Michelle Gilliam, Cultural Arts Supervisor for the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center. “As Ella’s birthplace, there’s a sense of pride in Newport News that comes from knowing that she is from here. We hope that her legacy and this celebration will inspire the youth to know Ella and continue to carry her name throughout history,” she said.
According to Gilliam, in 1997, a year after Ella passed away, Christopher Newport University’s Music Department partnered with the City of Newport News and conceptualized this event in response to the citizens of Newport News wanting to honor Ella in her birthplace. Additionally, they were preparing to create an avenue for the Ferguson Center of the Arts, a world class venue, celebrating world class artists. At the first festival, Ella’s son Ray Brown Jr. spoke at CNU’s graduation and was given an honorary degree from CNU commending his mother’s accomplishments.
In 2008, the festival relocated from CNU to the newly renovated Walter Reed School building, which had been transformed into the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center, with the theater being named after Ella.
Through the previous 19 years of its run, an amazing pantheon of world-class artists have taken part in Ella Fest, including Natalie Cole, Bobby McFerrin, Chris Botti, Jane Monheit, Cassandra Wilson, Arturo Sandoval, Diane Krall, the Kevin Eubanks Group, Lizz Wright, Rhonda Ross, Ann Hampton Callaway, Patti Austin, Ramsey Lewis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, David Sanborn, Ethel Ennis, Freda Payne, Aretha Franklin, Phil Woods, Jeane Carne, Ledisi, Chrisette Michele, Lalah Hathaway, Freddie Jackson, Roy Ayers, and Vivian Green.
The headliner in the festival’s first year at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in 2008 was Freda Payne.
This year, the first night of Ella Fest features the return of Grammy-nominated Jazz vocalist Jane Monheit. Her most recent album, 2016’s The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald, is a tribute to the artist she cites as her earliest influence. Drawing inspiration from Ella Fitzgerald herself, you can hear the emotion in Jane’s soul-stirring voice.
Once she decided to make this dream project a reality, she says she had no trouble choosing titles. She jotted down a list of 25 titles “almost immediately.” She and her producer, arranger, and trumpet great, Nicholas Payton, each narrowed the choices to a dozen and settled on the final list together.
“I thought it was important to capture the side of Ella that sometimes gets played down, her warmth and sincerity and the depth of her singing,” says Monheit. “I’m closer to that side, as a musician, than the crazy swinging total genius side of her.”
Opening for Ms. Monheit is singer/songwriter and Richmond-native, Jon Bibbs. Known for his exploration of different genres, including the traditionalism of American Songbook standards through his recording Jazz Variations Live from New York, released in 2013, Bibbs is also a highly respected educator, as well as Minister of Fine Arts at Fifth Street Baptist Church in Richmond.
Bibbs performance will also mark his return to the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center, where in 2015, he presented a show that highlighted the major African-American musical movements of the 20th century, including blues, swing, rhythm and blues, jazz, funk, hip-hop and many genres in between.
Jane Monheit, with opening act Jon Bibbs, will perform in the Ella Fitzgerald Theater on April 20, with the show beginning at 8 p.m.
Then, on the second night of the festival, attendees will be treated to a performance by the multiple Grammy and Tony Award winning singer and actress Jennifer Holliday.
Holliday landed her first big role on Broadway in 1979 at age 19 in a production of “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.” But her big breakthrough happened two years later when she originated and co-created the role of Effie Melody White in the smash Broadway hit musical Dreamgirls, for which she won her Tony Award.
On Broadway, she’s also played the role of Matron Mama Morton in Chicago, and most recently as Shug Avery in The Color Purple.
Although she’s had what she describes as “a moderately successful recording career,” Jennifer considers herself to be a “Broadway baby,” and theater continues to be the most significant part of her career. Nevertheless, Jennifer has released nine albums in her career, racking up three Grammy Awards in the process.
She’s also managed to acquire an impressive portfolio as an actress, appearing in both films and TV.
Jennifer Holliday will take the stage in the Ella Fitzgerald Theater on April 27, also at 8 p.m.
In a 2017 interview about the centennial of Ella’s birth, Michelle Gilliam said: “When you celebrate an icon that was born in our region, you are also celebrating other like stories from our city. We let our youth know they have control over their lives and can create bright futures just like Ella did.”
Ella Fitzgerald was able to fulfill her dreams, and presumably surpass anything her mother could have ever hoped for in those early years living in Newport News.
Words cannot describe how much richer the world is because she did.
About the Sponsor of this Article:
The Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center is a multi-purpose cultural space in the Southeast community of Newport News, Virginia. Originally built as the Walter Reed School in 1917, our historic building has been restored and open to the public since October 2008.
In addition to the 276-seat Ella Fitzgerald Theater, we have rooms for meetings and events, as well as studio space for visual and performing arts. The Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center is a facility of the City of Newport News department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.