04.25.17My Ella Story

On the 100th anniversary of her birth, I have to tell my Ella story.

When I was 20, I did my first tour outside of the country with a theatrical jazz group called Pamoja Experience. They chronicled Black American Music from slavery up to, what was then, the present. We performed at the Montreux Festival, the Umbria festival, some festivals I can't even remember now, BUT, the festival that most stands out in my mind was the North Sea Festival at the Hague. It stands out for several reasons. First of all, it was huge. Everyone was there. I was seeing all of my heroes. Max, Elvin, Dexter, Oscar and soooo many others. While I was in the lobby of the hotel that all of the performers stayed in, I saw Ella. She was not the Ella I expected. The beaming smile wasn't there. There was no twinkle in her eye. In fact, her eyes were closed. She was sick. She was in a wheelchair being pushed by her nurse. I felt terrible. It's a tough thing to see one of your heros in that condition. They went by and I continued on, but that image stayed with me.

We were to perform the next day and I was informed that we would be performing between the Don Ellis Big Band and (gasp) Ella Fitzgerald! Two thoughts went immediately through my mind. 1. I'm going to perform on the same stage as Ella Fitzgerald!! 2. Ella Fitzgerald is going to perform??? I didn't see how that was going to happen based on what I saw in the lobby.

The next day after Don Ellis' band played, we did our thing and it was well received but that didn't matter to me. I had to see what was going to happen with Ella. When we finished, I went back into the wings and watched Ella's band get set up. Then I saw Ella come into the wings back stage and she was just like I saw her in the lobby, in her wheel chair, not looking well at all. My heart sank. This would have been my first time seeing Ella live and it wasn't looking promising. Once the band was set and ready, her nurse wheeled her to the edge of the curtain, the announcer said "Ladies and Gentlemen, Ella Fitzgerald" and she got out of that wheelchair, hit the stage and wasn't sick anymore!! Instantaineously!! I'd never seen anything like it. She performed as if there was nothing wrong for about 2 hours with the encore. There was energy and laughter. The smile and the twinkle were there. Messed me up. But what struck me even more was when, after all that was done, she came back into the wings, sat in her wheelchair and was sick again. And again, instantaineously.

I'll never forget that as it showed me that this music has the power to heal and sustain. I kind of knew it already but this let me see it in action. The music was literally keeping Ella alive. She was vibrant when she was singing. She was present. She was joyful. The music was keeping her both physically and spiritually alive. She never knew this, but that experience shaped my entire approach to what I do and I'll be forever grateful to the First Lady of Song.

As an aside, the bass player with Ella was Keter Betts, who played with her for 24 years. Keter and I would later play together quite frequently up until his passing and he remembered that night. Didn't remember me, but he remembered that night.

04.18.17Welcome to the new site!!

Welcome to the new and improved website. New look, New links, New pics!! So excited to be back in the saddle after my shoulder surgery in 2015. It took a minute but good things come to those that wait, or in this case, finish all their Physical Therapy. Keep up to date on my gigs in the Itinerary section. Take a look at the new pics in the Gallery. And by all means, visit Lenny's Lessons. There will be Blogs coming as well as special announcements in this News section so check back in from time to time.

Glad to see you here and feel free to say hello in the Contact section!


Lenny