The First Lady of Song, the Queen of Jazz, or Lady Ella … it doesn’t matter how you know her, Ella Fitzgerald was a towering figure in the history of American music.
No surprise. Her reputation spread across borders and for one Canadian, she was a musical inspiration.
Karen Oxorn was in her early 20s when she caught a job at the National Gallery in the bookstore.
She has since realized a career as a jazz singer in Ottawa singing a range of music, but Ella is really never far from her mind. About five years ago she put on a tribute show to Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, based on a 1956 appearance the two singers put in at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Now Oxorn has returned to the deep well of Fitzgerald’s music to sing songs from the Great American Songbook by composers such as Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. Fitzgerald recorded these songs for the Verve label in the 1950s and ’60s and Oxron will reprise them in a sold out show called An Ella Celebration at the NAC’s Fourth Stage on Nov. 29.
But before she takes the stage along with guest vocalist Michael Curtis Hanna and a solid band led by Mark Ferguson and featuring Tim Bedner on guitar, Normand Glaude on double bass, Scott Latham on drums, Ed Lister on trumpet and Vince Rimbach on saxophone, she spoke to ARTSFILE.
This is the one I have been planning all my singing life. It is the 100th anniversary of her birth and she is my most significant influence,” Oxorn said.
“Although I didn’t start singing professionally until the early 2000s, in the early 1980s, when I worked at the National Gallery, where I spent my whole professional career, I worked in the bookstore and we were supposed to listen to classical music on the weekends and we didn’t.
“I listened to the Ella Songbook recordings. That is how I discovered her and through her jazz.”
Her colleague on the weekend sales team was the guy who put the records on. She became entranced and started collecting Ella records, but couldn’t find them all and so she wrote to Fitzgerald’s label using song titles in a creative way and was able to snag all the missing discs.
“She is my No. 1 inspiration and my music director Mark Ferguson, he played with Ella at the start of his career in the 1980s. When I was discovering her, he was living in Toronto and playing trombone. She would come into Toronto and perform at the Royal York.”
Oxorn says she had an interest in singing when she was young. In Grade 8, in Montreal, she tried out for The Wizard of Oz and “the drama teacher took me aside and said ‘Karen you have no voice.’ No teacher would say that now.”
The teacher urged her to try something else and she ended up painting scenery for the show. Her mother was an art historian and that side of her interests led Oxorn into working in connection with the visual arts. Eventually she would spent almost 35 years at the National Gallery. There was a musician at home. Her father, who was a doctor in Ottawa played the saxophone in a jazz band composed of obstetricians and gynecologists.
“My dad loved jazz.” And she never lost the love of singing for herself and continued listening to Ella. One night in the late 1990s she was singing along to Fitzgerald’s version of Ten Cents A Dance, and “I sat up in bed and said to myself ‘I sound good.” She had just broken up with the love of her life and that’s why she was singing along with such a sad song.
After that she started to become involved in the Ottawa jazz scene which she says is a very supportive one.
The first steps were into karaoke bars and piano bars and jam sessions. Some musicians would indulge me and over time she got better and better. But it started with Ella. “Ella was my teacher.”
She even practiced her singing craft on the picket line when National Gallery staff went on strike.
“I took all the songs that I had on a karaoke CD and rewrote all the lyrics to match the strike effort and we had a pageant called The Miss Management Pageant and all the guys dressed up in drag as Miss Appropriation and Miss Direction. I was the faded singer. A local studio devoted the recording time, and I lip-synched my own singing” on the picket line.
That was so much fun she thought she should try a singing career. “And it kind of went from there.”
She finally left the National Gallery in 2011 at age 55, but her professional singing carried on from about 2001. In 2002 she got really serious about singing professional and even managed to snag a gig at the Ottawa Jazz Festival where she became a regular.
These days she’s a well-known member of the Ottawa jazz community. But she’s also got a lot of personal responsibilities that she is looking after including caring for an elderly step-father who lives in Maryland. And she also wants to start travelling, something she has put off for some time, so that will limits her performances in future.
While this Ella show has been percolating for several years, but Oxorn really got down to business about a year ago when she picked the theme that she wanted to focus the night upon.
Fitzgerald’s series on the Songbook was where she landed. The show will feature 18 songs.
“Nothing will ever replace my love of that music because it is my first love as far as jazz goes,” she said. “If I could do nothing but ballads, that’s what I would do.” However, Oxorn says she’ll even do some scatting in this show.
What is really kind of neat is that one of Fitzgerald’s biggest songs ever was written by a relative of Oxorn’s.
“I call him my great uncle but he’s really my first cousin (twice removed). He’s named Sam Coslow. He had some big hits and one of Ella’s biggest hits is usually called Mr. Paginini, but it’s really called … You’ll Have To Swing it.”
Her mother’s family is from New York City and Oxorn did meet him at a Christmas party many years ago.
“I didn’t know him, but I have come to know his daughters and other members of the family.”
In the end, Oxorn says this will be her last Ella show. But she will always treasure the “pure beauty of her voice” as captured in the recordings of the songbook.
“Nobody can put over a song, to me, the way she can.”