By Jerome Langston
When virtuoso trumpet player and singer, Byron Stripling, was just a young-un in his twenties, he had the unique honor of being lead trumpeter and soloist in the iconic Count Basie Orchestra, which at the time was led by Thad Jones and Frank Foster. This interests me mainly because of the Frank Foster connection—I tell Byron, during our phone interview. The multiple Grammy winner and legendary composer and arranger, moved to Chesapeake in his later years, and despite some considerable health setbacks, continued to write music up until his death five years ago.
Foster’s presence here in VA was always deeply felt. Whenever superstars like Wynton Marsalis would come through for a gig here, they would always take the time to acknowledge Mr. Foster, and his wife Cecilia, if they were in the audience. Byron had the honor of really knowing Frank though, during those years playing with the orchestra. “Well look, this is like a family member to me, Frank Foster,” he says. And even though there was a huge age difference between them, Frank always embraced the young musicians. “Frank would always jam with us before the gigs.”
“I always thought that nobody loved the music more than Frank Foster,” he says, later. Stripling will be in town soon to play with our Virginia Symphony Orchestra, for a pair of dates in Newport News and Norfolk. What makes that special is that the show is a tribute to another Virginia jazz legend, Ella Fitzgerald, as well as to a man called Satchmo, jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Stripling put together the show, as he performs with major orchestras all the time, and does his famous take on Louis Armstrong, often. He’s joined by singer Marva Hicks, who channels Ella, and acclaimed guest conductor Ankush Bahl, who just concluded a long stint with the National Symphony Orchestra
“I’m working with these two fantastic guests artists, who are totally unique among their fields,” Ankush tells me later during our phone conversation, referring of course to Byron and Marva. Ankush has conducted for VSO before, but has never worked with these artists or conducted this specific program. He’s a big fan of both Louis and Ella though, as he played trumpet in jazz band growing up. “I played a lot of these tunes and I’ve conducted several of these tunes,” he says, simply. “There’s such sincerity in that voice, and that’s what people connect to,” says Ankush about Armstrong.
For Byron, Louis Armstrong has long been an idol of his as a jazz trumpeter and overall performer. “He was a guy who had the grits and gravy of the music, but also had the intellectual part,” he explains. “His playing and his singing are still pervasive throughout music.”
Stripling has portrayed Satchmo on multiple occasions, including in the touring show, Satchmo: America’s Musical Legend, which was poorly received by some critics, and came very early in his career, and in the revival of The Real Ambassadors, by Dave Brubeck. Beyond those, he has performed Louis Armstrong’s hits as a guest artist for many of the top symphony orchestras, including the Boston Pops Orchestra. “I’m using theater as a delivery system, to give people the joy and happiness which Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald brought to the world.”
For these Virginia dates, classics like “A Tisket, A Tasket,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “What A Wonderful World,” will get the huge orchestra treatment and should capture the great spirit of both Louis and Ella, whose duet albums for Verve Records are of course, legendary.
“Those classic duets that you hear on the records with Louis and Ella, which I love so much, we’re gonna do those, but we’re have the beauty of a full orchestra behind us, and some amazing arrangements,” explains Byron. “It’s magic time.”
Indeed it will be. Ankush believes that some audience members will be surprised by how much of this music they are already familiar with. “I feel like people are going to go to the concert thinking they know two songs, but they’re gonna know 90%,” he says, rightfully noting that much of the public may not know the song titles, but they’ve heard these classics in movies and on television. He also believes many of them will be blown away by the live experience.
“When you can get a big orchestra to back up these fantastic tunes, it’s a uniquely sonic experience.”
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: A Musical Tribute
September 29 at Ferguson Center for the Arts
October 1 at Chrysler Hall
Virginia Symphony Orchestra with
Ankush Bahl, conductor
Marva Hicks, vocals
Byron Stripling, trumpet and vocals