During her long and stellar career, jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy awards, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and sold more than 40 million albums for her flexible, wide-ranging voice that could imitate every instrument in an orchestra.
On April 25, Desirée Roots and James “Saxsmo” Gates will again combine their musical genius in recognition of Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday. Fitzgerald, who was born April 25, 1917 in Newport News, Va., died in 1996 at age 76. Yet, her extraordinary voice and musical abilities continue to be recognized throughout the world.
In “Ella at 100,” Roots will perform two sets of Fitzgerald’s most noted songs at the Virginia Repertory Theatre in a one-night performance. Accompanied by a 14-piece orchestra that will include some of Richmond’s most acclaimed jazz musicians, the performance will be under the musical direction of Gates. Joining Roots onstage will be Scott Wichmann as Frank Sinatra, Billy Dye as Louis Armstrong, and Anthony Cosby as Nat “King” Cole.
“There are performances celebrating Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday taking place from New York to Los Angeles,” says Adrienne P. Whitaker, a Virginia Repertory Theatre board member. ” I am thrilled the Virginia Repertory Theatre is hosting a show here in Richmond. And, I can’t think of anyone better to play the jazz legend than our very own jazz star, Desiree Roots. I can’t wait!”
Roots and Gates enjoy distinct and fond memories of Ella Fitzgerald, whose six-decade career led to her crowning as the most popular female jazz singer in the United States.
Roots, a talented and well-known singer in Richmond and other parts of the United States, first regaled audiences in a local performance of “The Wiz” at age 13. Gates, director of Jazz Studies at Virginia State University, is a brilliant and popular saxophonist who also hails from Richmond. Having known one another since childhood, Roots and Gates have produced several of their own recordings and have performed together numerous times.
Roots was exposed to Fitzgerald’s music during her childhood in a home where jazz and other music forms literally flowed like water. Roots’ father, the late James H. “Jimmy” Roots Jr., was a pianist, organist and vocalist for gospel singer Rosetta Tharpe during the 1940s and 1950s. Desiree Roots’ mother, Sarah, sang background for Tharpe.
Young Desiree, then a budding musical prodigy herself, loved to listen to the sounds of Art Tatum, Della Reese, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan. But it was Ella Fitzgerald’s sound that left a special place in Roots’ heart.
“I remember Ella Fitzgerald in a movie where she was on a school bus singing ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket,’ ” Roots recalled, adding how much the song captivated her.
Years later, after graduating from Virginia Union University with a degree in music, education and philosophy, Roots began performing the jazz, gospel and classical sounds of her favorite artists. Many of those performances have included Ella Fitzgerald’s music.
“I did a tribute at the Second Street Festival in 1998 or 2000; it was the Showmobile,” Roots says. She recently found a water damaged photograph of the performance behind her computer desk. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I remember that day.’”
Five years ago Roots also got a chance to perform Fitzgerald’s music, along with that of Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson, during a performance at Richmond’s Centerstage. In a newspaper interview before the performance, Roots acknowledged that performing Ella’s songs could be challenging because of the vocalist’s renowned scatting abilities.
“Ella’s voice, to me, is so melodic, so effortless,” she says. “She has been compared so many times to an instrument. It’s hard to explain, but her voice is almost spiritual. With the songs that I’ve selected for the show, I will be in that zone.”
Indeed, Roots shared a story about one of her performances at a Richmond restaurant and night spot in which a divorced couple attended, having been tricked into going there by their sons. Roots performed the “Second Time Around” and the next time the couple attended her performance at the same place, their sons were nowhere in sight. After being divorced for 20 years, the couple eventually remarried, after saying to Roots: “Your voice does something for us.”
Roots hopes that her fans and followers who attend the April 25 performance will leave with the same reaction. “I want the impact on her music to be for the audience to say, ’Wow, that was an awesome show!’”
Gates, the production’s musical director is convinced that Roots “is the only person who can give justice to Ella Fitzgerald.”
He should know. Like Roots, Gates also hails from a musical family. His father, the late James Bryant “Boo” Gates Sr., played saxophone for Della Reese’s band, as well as other well-known musicians. In addition to his work at VSU, Gates’ own resume includes performances with Art Blakey, Larry Carlton, Jeff Lorber, Alex Bugnon, Cyrus Chestnut, Chris Botti, Billy Kilson, Terrance Blanchard and many others.
Yet, being tapped by Roots, who conceived staging the Ella Fitzgerald performance and tribute at the Virginia Repertory Theatre, was an “humbling” experience, says Gates.
Both musicians recognize the importance of continuing the legacy of performers such as Fitzgerald and others. In 1980, as a freshman at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Gates learned that Ella Fitzgerald would be performing in the Boston Symphony Hall. Gates decided to wait until the end of Fitzgerald’s performance, in the pouring rain, just to get a chance to speak with her. His diligence was rewarded. Upon exiting the hall and about to enter a white limousine, Fitzgerald noticed the young music student standing in the rain. When Gates introduced himself, so impressed was Fitzgerald that she serenaded him with the song “I’m Singing in the Rain,” says Gates.
Before departing, Fitzgerald left Gates with words that he still remembers. “Young man, make sure that you continue to get good grades, keep the music alive. We need young lions like yourself to preserve the music.”
TUESDAY, APRIL 25, 2017
7 p.m. performance
The November Theatre
Virginia Repertory Theatre
114 W. Broad St. Richmond, VA 23220
Tickets $35 – $100
Prices subject to change