Sophisticated Swing

“Sophisticated Ladies” honors Holiday, Fitzgerald,  Vaughn, and more at Schuster with Dayton Philharmonic

Capathia Jenkins is also a successful screen actress

By Tim Smith

Once upon a time, song lyricists were akin to poets, telling interesting stories set to memorable melodies. Sometimes they were sad, sometimes lighthearted, but most often, the subject was love and heartbreak. “Sophisticated Ladies” pays tribute to three legendary singers who mastered the art of interpreting these songs—Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn. It will be presented by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra on Jan. 26 and 27 at the Schuster Center as part of their SuperPops series.

Guest conductor Steven Reineke is the Music Director and Conductor of The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, Principal Pops Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, and Principal Pops Conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The Tipp City native is responsible for bringing this production to life.

“This show first came about in 2015, which was the year we were celebrating the centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth,” he says. “When I put this show together, I wanted to celebrate not only her, but the other great African-American female singers that were active in that time. The good thing about this music is that it doesn’t have to be anyone’s centennial to celebrate this era in pop music.”

The show features the vocal talents of Broadway and concert veterans Montego Glover, N’Kenge, and Capathia Jenkins. All three come to this collaboration with extensive backgrounds in a variety of genres. N’Kenge in particular has a fondness for the songs of this era.

“With this concert, we get to pay homage to all of the great ladies of song,” she says. “They paved a path for the rest of us. I’ve actually developed a new musical based on the life of Dorothy Dandridge. This is an era I love, and it’s great that we get to pay tribute to these legendary singers.”

N’Kenge’s website motto is “Opera chic turned pop,” and she feels that it’s a good label to represent the wide range of music she performs. She noted that she has a couple of favorites from “Sophisticated Ladies.”

“Stormy Weather, which is just such a classic, is one, and the new arrangement that we do is phenomenal,” she says. “There’s a Cab Calloway song called Za-Zu-Za, which is sort of like Minnie The Moocher. It’s kind of an audience participation piece with the call and response. It’s fun for the symphony and the audience, adding their voices to what I’m doing.”

Reineke explained how he brought the program from concept to performance.

“I handpicked these three ladies for this show,” he says. “We’ve worked together in the past and they’re all top-notch. They put their own spin on these songs, and they’re just a delight to hear. Typically, I’ll have 2 rehearsals with the orchestra, each one about 2 hours long. With the singers, I’ll rehearse separately. We’ll get together and work out the details. The bigger part is getting the orchestra to adapt, because it’s a really swinging show, but the DPO can swing with the best of them.”

The period of American culture known as the Harlem Renaissance began in the 1920s, and gave rise to many musicians and artists who would become part of history. Harlem’s cabarets and clubs, including the famous Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington first gained fame, attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife.

“This is such a wonderful time in American musical history, because there were many great songwriters and performers during the Harlem Renaissance,” Reineke says. “So many good singers who contributed to the Great American Songbook. These were the hottest clubs for people to go to. Music was a great uniting force for a lot of people during that time, with racial tensions being what they were.”

The Miami University graduate came to this project with a personal fondness for the music of the era. When asked what he enjoys listening to when he’s not on the podium, Reineke had a quick response.

“My go-to favorite is Ella Fitzgerald,” he says. “If I’m relaxing around the house, or cooking, or having a dinner party, her music is what I listen to. The program we’re doing in Dayton is right up my alley because she’s my favorite, especially the albums she recorded with arranger Nelson Riddle. One of my degrees is in musical composition, and I do a lot of my own arranging and orchestrating. When I got to New York, I made connections with the Nelson Riddle and Gershwin estates. I got access to Riddle’s original charts, the ones he wrote for Ella Fitzgerald. We’ll be using those charts during the show, which makes it really authentic and exciting.”

Reineke hopes that the audience experiences the same level of enthusiasm and appreciation that he and the three vocalists have for this type of music.

“Number one, I want them to have a lot of fun,” he says. “People come at the end of a busy week and they’re a little tired. When they leave, I’d like them to think ‘Oh, my gosh, I was in such a bad mood when I came in, but now I feel great.’ I want the audience to feel that they’ve just witnessed something special and fun. This program is very personal to me because I put it together from start to finish. Plus, I get to come back home.”

“Sophisticated Ladies” will be presented at The Schuster Center, One West 2nd St., Dayton at 8 p.m. on Jan. 26 and 27. For tickets or more information, call 888.228.3630, or visit DaytonPerformingArts.org

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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