YSO pops celebrates Fitzgerald

Capathia Jenkins describes Ella Fitzgerald as a vocalist “who could sing the ink right off the page.”

“The First Lady of Song” won 13 Grammy Awards and sold more than 40 million albums during a career that spanned seven decades until her death in 1996.

Jenkins will be joined by Aisha de Haas and Harolyn Blackwell for a Youngstown Symphony Orchestra pops concert tribute to Fitzgerald on Saturday at Powers Auditorium.

“It takes three of us to bring the different sides of her,” Jenkins said during a telephone interview. “It takes three women to do an adequate tribute.”

Jenkins has sung the ink off a few pages herself. She made her Broadway debut in “The Civil War” in 2000, followed by roles in the original casts of “Caroline, or Change,” “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me” and “Newsies the Musical.” She earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for playing the title character Off-Broadway in “(mis) Understanding Mammy — The Hattie McDaniel Story.”

Fitzgerald always has been one of her favorite singers.

“Ella was a master at what she was able to do,” Jenkins said. “I’ve always admired her. She used her voice very much like one of the boys in the band, very impressive … One of the things I love about her most is her live recordings. She performs with pure joy and this abandon. When I get to sing her music, that’s what I bring to the table.”

Singing Fitzgerald’s songs with orchestras has made her re-examine those recordings and listen to them in a different way.

“I approach learning material from the lyrics first,” she said. “It’s always about a story for me. What’s great about Ella is there are so many recordings of her, so many arrangements. What we do in the the symphony show are those original Nelson Riddle arrangements. When I’m home prepping, I can literally sing along with her recordings.

“I like to find my own way, I like to tell a story, but so much of the work is done for me because of those arrangements. People come to see these shows for Ella. I want to be true to that. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.”

But Fitzgerald wasn’t the same singer late in her career that she was the in the beginning, and Jenkins said she like the looseness of those later recordings.

“When she was doing certain things like ‘A Tisket, A Tasket,’ she was like 21 or so. In the beginning, as we all are, she was less experienced and focused on getting it right. In her later years, it was about having fun, being in the moment. There are records where she forgets the words, makes it up and is having a great time. … As she got older, (the mood was), ‘Good evening, this is my party. This is my house. Let’s have a blast.'”

In addition to her stage work, Jenkins has performed with orchestras throughout the United States as well as in Cuba and the Czech Republic.

“I’m a little black girl from Brooklyn. Standing on stage with a 60-, 70-, 80-piece orchestra beginning an introduction and I’m standing there in my pretty dress, I’m so excited. It’s so thrilling, the most thrilling thing.”

Several of those orchestral performances have been led by Youngstown Symphony Orchestra Conductor Randall Craig Fleischer, include the premiere of “Ella: First Lady of Song” with the Cleveland Orchestra last summer.

“I’ve worked with him quite a bit, and I’ve been to Youngstown a couple times now,” Jenkins said. “I’m excited to get back there. It’s a great orchestra and lovely people as well. I just adore him.”

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