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Meet the Artist

Born in Boston, Meredith d' Ambrosio developed artistic leanings in both music and the visual arts in her early years. Her career began as a singer-pianist, and all the while she kept up her activities as calligrapher, watercolorist, and creator of egg-shell mosaic. Her own artwork graces the cover of her CDs. Her latest album on the Sunnyside label, Beware of Spring, uses her watercolor, "Auvers-sur-Oise." Cooking is also very important to her. "Cooking is an art in itself and I don't have to make money at it. So, I enjoy it more than anything ... " At last count she has done 12 "paraphrase songs" that are being published in a folio for teaching purposes, and a CD of these is also likely. Having started her musical career in Boston in 1981, she headed for New York and began extensive tours in the United States, Canada, and Europe. During the early 1980s Ms. d' Ambrosio performed with and made critically acclaimed albums with such artists as Maynard Ferguson, Hank Jones, Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Eddie Higgins, and Jay Leonhart (bass). Since their marriage in 1988, Ms. d' Ambrosio and her pianist husband Eddie Higgins have been a regular team in concert and on club dates, delighting audiences with their elegant repertoire, fine musicianship, and joy in making music together. They have recorded three CDs on Sunnyside. As a pianist she has appeared on Marian McPartland's National Public Radio series "Piano Jazz."

Born and raised in New England, pianist Eddie Higgins's professional career began in Chicago. For some twenty years he worked at some of Chicago's best jazz clubs-the Brass Rail, Blue Note, Preview Lounge, Cloister Inn, and Jazz Ltd. His lengthiest and most memorable job was at London House, where he led the house trio for 12 years, playing opposite the biggest names of the era including Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Cannonball Adderley. In 1988 he married singer/ pianist Meredith d' Ambrosio. Born in California's San Fernando Valley, drummer Gerry Gibbs is son of the legendary vibes player, Terry Gibbs. He secured his early engagements with Buddy DeFranco and Alice Coltrane. Apart from performing with Ms. d' Ambrosio, he has played with Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano, and Larry Coryell and has headed his own sextet that includes Ravi Coltrane, son of John Coltrane. He has several original pieces to his credit. Baltimore-born Jay Leonhart, bassist, studied at the Peabody Conservatory in his hometown and later at Boston's Berklee School of Music. He has worked with guitarist Jim Hall, veteran pianist Marian McPartland, and such musicians as Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, and Lee Konitz. Mr. Leonhart has written songs, some of which he has recorded.
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Notes on the Program
By SORAB MODI © 1996 S.M.

When Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong died on July 6, 1971, he had established himself as one of the principal architects of that unique American art form—Jazz. Ellington expressed it well when he commented, "If anybody was Mr. Jazz it was Louis Armstrong... He is what I call an American standard, an American original." Louis Armstrong was truly a phenomenon- he could play the trumpet like nobody else, and his style of singing was also truly unique. He played with strength and inventiveness. His tone, range, and phrasing became the criteria by which musicians judged themselves. Earl (Fatha) Hines is often reported to have said that he had taken his piano style from Armstrong's trumpet playing, an indicator of Armstrong's profound impact on jazz. The other side of his musical activity was his gravel-throated singing. His singing is always very pleasing-endlessly original and innovative. His first vocal efforts go back to November of 1925 when he cut "Heebies Jeebies." By 1928, when he was making the last of the great Hot Five sessions, he was singing on virtually every record, as well as at club engagements. His singing, along with his irrepressible bent for entertaining and his wide, toothy grin, endeared him to millions. At one time every jazz trumpet player (Armstrong started out playing the comet) in the world was influenced in one way or another by Louis Armstrong. Decades later came two other giants-Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis-who also set new trends. They found followers in men like Wynton Marsalis and Jon Faddis. Armstrong not only influenced trumpet players but changed the whole course of jazz by inventing the solo. Speaking of Armstrong, Miles Davis said, "you can't play anything on a horn that Lams hasn't played." The melodic and harmonic simplicity of Armstrong’s style is in marked contrast to the innovations that came with bebop and its master musicians like Gillespie, Davis, Clifford Brown, and Fats Navarro. Armstrong's solo on "West End Blues," recorded June 28, 1928, took jazz from its "ensemble" days to the glories of solo improvisation. As Gunther Schuller points out in his book Early Jazz (Oxford University Press) "Like any profoundly creative innovation, 'West End Blues' summarized the past and predicted the future." Many consider this solo to be a watershed in the evolution of jazz.

Armstrong worked with a number of singers in the 1920s. His recordings career began in 1923 when he cut his first disc, Chimes Blues, with King Oliver. His recordings with the legendary Bessie Smith are known to all jazz collectors. There are also sessions with some other greats-Clara Smith, Trixie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Ma Rainey. Between January and May of 1925, he recorded seven sessions with the three Smiths.

In planning the series "The Louis Armstrong Legacy," Dr. Billy Taylor, the Kennedy Center's artistic advisor for jazz, had 111 m111d Armstrong's enormous influence on jazz vocalists and many other jazz performers. "He was a very pervasive influence in his early days as a singer and that continued through most of his life," says Dr. Taylor. It 1s amazing to think that years later many seem to know Louis as a singer, and the s111g111g reflects what Louis had pioneered. Every jazz singer today is a beneficiary of the Louis Armstrong Legacy. What he did with his voice is very similar to what he did with the horn. Dr. Taylor continues "The source for both was the same spirit. In his early work, many of the things he did vocally were things that he played." The trumpet was for all practical purposes his principal "voice." Every trumpeter Ellington ever used reflects some aspect of Armstrong-Ray Nance, Cootie Williams, Bubber Miley, Clark Terry. Terry seems to have inherited Satchmo's mantle as entertainer in the way he blows and sings. Basically, it's the rhythmic aspect of what Armstrong did when he sang that influenced what most people think of as his "lyrical" way of playing his instrument. Toward the end of his life, as his physical ability to blow the horn waned, he supplanted his trumpet solos with singing, to which he brought the_ verve ~d expressiveness that had characterized Jazz 111 the 1930s and 40s. Billy Taylor points out that "Bing Crosby was influenced by his singing as were the many others in the 30s-pop and otherwise-who found fascinating things." Fats Waller, when he and Armstrong worked together on Broadway, was fascinated by the manner in which he performed his (Waller s) material. Armstrong's first song hit was Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin"' which he sang in the revue Hot Chocolate in 1929.

"His singing and his playing embodied the essence of jazz. Melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, the liberties that he took with songs that he sang, whether it was 'Hello, Dolly!' or whatever, was always from a jazz point of view. People say he was commercial, well that is after the fact. He did what he felt was the right artistic and aesthetic thing for that piece of music," explains Dr. Taylor. It is not mandatory that the people who are performing in these concerts do his material. "It's that he had the kind of influence that's acknowledged by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others," says Dr. Taylor. The four singers selected for the series that opens today with Meredith d' Ambrosio are Carol Sloane (December 13); Sheila Jordan (February 14, 1997); and Betty Carter (March 21, 1997). Each has enriched the art of the jazz vocal in her own way and each has her own point of view. Meredith d' Ambrosio, according to Dr. Taylor, has a very contemporary and personal way of presenting her material. Dr. Taylor believes that each of these four singers are examples of four distinct singing styles. He explains his choices with, "Sheila Jordan is a wonderful singer and a fine teacher who really represents bebop in a totally different way from Betty Carter. She has come through with a style of singing that's influenced by Charlie Parker .... She does adventurous things with her voice." Meredith d' Ambrosio's inventive recastings of familiar melodies and lyrics-she calls them "paraphrase songs" -have attracted discerning jazz lovers everywhere. (She has a big following in France.) These "paraphrase songs," according to Ms. d' Ambrosio, are based on established repertoire and seem to follow what Gillespie and Parker did when they constructed a new melodic line on the chord changes of existing songs. Her "paraphrase song" entitled "Cauliflower Soul" is based on "I Fall in Love Too Easily"; "Solitary II" is based on "Alone Together." And if she does a song by Louis Armstrong, it will be "Summer Song."
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