News & Features » Miscellany

Eve Cornelious salutes Ella Fitzgerald, Ruth Brown and Pearl Bailey.

Technicolor Talent

The musical centerpiece of the Virginia Museum's African-American History celebration this year is a salute to Virginia natives Ella Fitzgerald, Ruth Brown and Pearl Bailey. The Feb. 18 program, "I Feel Like Some Jazz Today," will feature internationally acclaimed singer Eve Cornelious, performing with her husband's Chip Crawford Trio.

Cornelious has a supple voice that is capable of both caressing an intimate lyric and exploding in a wide variety of pyrotechnics — hers is a Technicolor talent. Careers have been built on similar flashy capabilities (i.e. Buddy Rich), but in Cornelious' case sonic beauty is balanced by structural intelligence.

Cornelious is a natural choice for a salute to Ella Fitzgerald. Her unfettered, extroverted style lends itself well to the material Fitzgerald was known for. She has conducted some formal studies of the singer's approach, preparing accurate transcriptions of her vocal solos (as well as those of Carmen McCray and Billie Holliday). Cornelious' rendition of a transcription of Fitzgerald's scat tour de force "Airmail Special" is a high point of her recent CD, "I Feel Like Some Jazz Today."

In addition, Cornelious grew up in Fitzgerald's hometown of Newport News. (Although she was born in Sarah Vaughn's native city of Newark, N.J.) "There is something in knowing someone walked on the same soil as you do that creates a connection," she says.

Whereas Ella is synonymous with jazz singing, fellow Newport News native Pearl Bailey is better-known for her Broadway, film and television appearances. Bailey built her reputation during the Big Band era and married Duke Ellington drummer Louis Bellson, but that was when the line between jazz and pop music was nonexistent.

"I never considered her to be a jazz singer," Cornelious admits, "but she was a great performer and entertainer. I've studied her, listened to her music and learned about her. I do some of her songs."

Of Portsmouth-born Ruth Brown, Cornelious says, "She was singing R&B before it was R&B. It was just blues with a beat." Brown's earthy, humorous songs had some fairly risqué content. "She has a lot of [sexual] references in her music," she says." I've done some Ruth Brown stuff, and some people love it and laugh. Some others ... well, you know some church people already think it's the devil's music."

Because her path to jazz led through other styles, Cornelious is well-qualified to handle a program dedicated to three musicians who are united less by style than by geography. "I was an R&B girl when I was growing up" she recalls. " I listened to soul and funky stuff, people like the Supremes and Gladys Knight. I still feel R&B in me."

Her recent CD "I Feel Like Some Jazz Today" covers familiar territory in unfamiliar ways. "We didn't want to do standards like everyone else does," she explains. The lyrics to "My Funny Valentine" are stretched and altered to fit the structure of Miles Davis' version, the words secondary to the notes of the famous solo. "I Love Paris/April in Paris" melds two Cole Porter classics into a single flowing whole, alternating melody and lyrics every few bars with disarming ease.

During her Feb. 18 performance at the Virginia Museum, Cornelious plans to retain her signature style. "I'm not going to try and be them, just capture the essence of what they do," she says. "Because this performance is a salute, I want to be somewhat reminiscent of them. My goal is to internalize their spirit and hope that something great will come out."

So the intent is to channel the souls of the Masters? "Well, maybe not Ruth Brown," Cornelious says, laughing. "She's still alive and going strong. If I conjured her up on-stage from wherever she is, she might not appreciate

Add a comment