Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ella's Grace Glows in the Jazz Museum

Commissioned works by KC artists join artifacts in a tribute to the First Lady of Song.
by Heather Lustfeldt for The Kansas City Star

March 28, 2012

The joyous elegance of Ella Fitzgerald fills the air of the American Jazz Museum's Changing Gallery in a remarkable tribute exhibit to her life and career in jazz.

"Ella: First Lady of Song" comprises film, objects and artifacts drawn from the museum's collections and the collection of Gary and Anita Maltbia. It also features commissioned artwork by 10 Kansas City artists and sculptor Howard Lazar, from San Francisco.

"I wanted people to walk in and be introduced to Ella Fitzgerald," said Sonie Joi Ruffin, artist and visiting curator at the museum.

Visitors immediately experience Fitzgerald's dynamic performances through archival film footage on a large flat-screen monitor of the classic tunes "Summertime," "Lush Life," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Lady Be Good," accompanied by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Ruffin collaborated with Zachary Hoskins, the museum's first John H. Baker Jazz film fellow, to present this footage from television performances in the late 1960s. On the walls, salon-style vignettes combine with art, framed album covers, objects, awards and photographs to offer a historical and pictorial journey of Fitzgerald's life as a prolific artist and performer.

While providing this structure, Ruffin emphasized her improvisational, collaborative approach to organizing and installing the exhibit, a method reflecting the spirit of jazz.

"Improvisation is a planned act," she said. "I wanted to maintain that sense of improvisation in planning the show."

Fitzgerald made her singing debut at 17 in 1934 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Clifford Doyle harks back to that time with an impressionistic oil painting depicting the Apollo's marquee illuminated by bright lights reflecting on the shiny, busy street.

Other works evoking Fitzgerald include a large, intricate wall sculpture of steel and white porcelain by Reilly Hoffman and Kelly Dickens' depiction of the concave interior of a floral hat, an impressive, unconventional reference to Fitzgerald's iconic style.

"Iconography," an acrylic on panel by Myles Cheadle, depicts a black keyhole on a white background filled with meandering text and symbols -- insulin (a reference to her diabetes), a jewel, a microphone, her name, birth and death dates, and a shiny gold crown.

An ethereal black-and-white portrait in oil wash by Michael Brantley is among ranging interpretations of her image and persona.

A buoyant acrylic on canvas by Robert Quackenbush depicts Fitzgerald singing in a pink, feathered hat, her name aside in gold print above a green, structured ground. The piece pops, installed with grommets upon a central orange wall.

Also striking, albeit very different, is Lazar's gleaming, larger-than-life ceramic bust of Fitzgerald in an emerald green dress and Brantley's monumental, evocative oil on canvas, "First Lady," a monochromatic, dreamily realistic vision of Fitzgerald deep in song.

Joseph Smith's five portraits on paper, including a watercolor, "Ella at the Gem," of an older Fitzgerald in front of the Gem marquee and an emotive three-quarter profile watercolor, "Queen of Scat," with the lyrics for "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," are quiet and reflective within vignettes.

NedRa Bonds, who contributed two intimate, framed quilts, incorporates screen prints of Fitzgerald and song lyrics, including a verse from "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" in one quilt with a basket-patterned, beaded brown band and a green and white floral outer edge.

Everyone has a different take: Clifford Doyle's glamorous acrylic-on-canvas of Fitzgerald, based on an iconic photograph from the early '50s, contrasts with Cheadle's funky mixed-media portrait in dazzling blues and reds; Michelle Beasley's acrylic-on-panel depicting four full-length, multicolored portraits of Fitzgerald as a blossoming icon looks to Andy Warhol's multiples.

Pivotal photographs include a 1947 image by William Gottlieb of Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, and a Herman Leonard image of Fitzgerald performing in New York for an audience including Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

Female camaraderie emanates from photographs of Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at New York City's Bop City Club in 1947, and a radiant Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe at Mocambo Nightclub in Hollywood in 1955.

Fitzgerald credited Monroe for persuading owner Charlie Morrison to book her at the club, making her the first African-American to perform at Mocambo. Her move to Verve Records in 1956 and the subsequent release of "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook" -- the first of eight multi-album songbooks with Verve produced by Norman Granz -- launched her into the mainstream.

"Ella: First Lady of Song" continues in the Changing Gallery at the American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th St., through June 1. Hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday. Admission to the exhibit is free. For more information, 816-474-8463 or

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