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Generations of jazz

Kim Nalley and Roy Ayers perform in Palo Alto, part of San Jose Jazz's Winter Fest

Next week, several generations of jazz artists will be represented locally as part of San Jose Jazz's Winter Fest 2017 concerts on the Peninsula.

Vocalist Kim Nalley will celebrate legendary singer Ella Fitzgerald's centenary on Sunday, Feb. 26. A San Francisco-based musical treasure since the 1990s, Nalley has sung with proto-swing and jump blues bands, led her own jazz groups and, most recently, pursued a doctorate in history at the University of California, Berkeley, with stints in between as a club owner in North Beach and on various stages as an actress. The Connecticut native brings to her Fitzgerald project a three-and-a-half-octave vocal range, a deep knowledge of jazz history and a storyteller's instincts and charisma.

"We'll be focusing on Ella's earlier years," Nalley said. "She was homeless when she started out -- homeless in New York City, so really homeless. And she'd dance in the street for money. She started dancing, not singing."

Fitzgerald began her ascent to greatness when she entered a talent contest at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. "There happened to be a dance act ahead of her that was really good. So she changed her mind at the last moment and decided to sing instead of dance. And she won the first prize."

Part of the prize included a slot performing at the Apollo. "But it was very obvious that she was not anywhere near ready to do anything like that," Nalley recounted, pointing out that she was wearing dirty clothes, had matted hair and didn't have access to bathing facilities.

As fate would have it, drummer and famed bandleader Chick Webb needed a vocalist after his singer left to go on tour with the pop act The Ink Spots, she said. Since Fitzgerald was still homeless, he and his associates had to scour the streets of New York to find her.

"They took her in and fixed her up," Nalley said. "And the way that they spun it to the press was that she was an underage child, and Chick Webb had adopted her. She was actually over 18, but that was more palatable."

Nalley said she had a couple of thoughts in mind when choosing to highlight Fitzgerald's early years as a vocalist with a big band and rags-to-riches story. One was to point out that the vocalist famous for the catchy "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" had a far darker past (through no fault of her own) than the hit would suggest.

"It belies the notion that many people have had about Ella, that she was so innocent. She really, really had it hard -- a difficult childhood. But somehow her demeanor and her voice comes off as very shiny," Nalley said. "Also, the next time someone walks by a homeless person now, perhaps they'll remember Ella's story and be reminded of the innate humanity in everyone."

Nalley has worked with the likes of saxophonists Houston Person and David "Fathead" Newman, organist Rhoda Scott and saxophonist/bandleader Johnny Nocturne. She's now bringing the next generation of talent onto her bandstand.

"Like Kalil, I started off singing classical and moved to jazz," she noted, referring to her special guest, Oakland Youth Chorus alumnus Kalil Wilson, who has an undergraduate degree in voice and opera from UCLA.

"Obviously Ella was a great scatter. And I also needed somebody else who was a good scatter," she said. "We intend to have some good scat-offs -- some competitive, friendly scat-offs -- at our tribute to Ella."

Two nights earlier, vibraphone legend Roy Ayers will headline his own show at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, bringing decades of jazz experience with him.

Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Roy Ayers was part of a vibrant scene that included jazz orchestra leader Gerald Wilson, saxophonists Teddy Edwards and Chico Hamilton and pianist Hampton Hawes.

"There was a lot of jamming, especially when I was growing up," he said. "My God, there were enormous jobs, too. There were so many places we could just go and play."

Ayers was given his first set of mallets by Lionel Hampton, the father of jazz vibraphone, and he would practice -- or 'shed -- with Bobby Hutcherson, another vibraphone (and marimba) pioneer.

In the '70s, Ayers' audience moved from strictly jazz to a broader dance crowd as he changed his sound to a club-friendly one. He had a hit in 1976 with "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" and enjoyed the new challenge as talented instrumentalists in bands such as Earth, Wind & Fire and Chic became his peers.

"It was very motivating because the interest of the people was great then," he recalled. As to having people dance while he was playing, the way audiences did in the swing era, he replied that "every once in awhile, people still get into the groove."

Ayers re-emerged in the '90s through working on the late hip-hop MC GURU's "Jazzmatazz" project and also via being frequently sampled into the work of subsequent generations of music makers. "I've been sampled more than anybody else except James Brown," he proudly said.

Freelance writer Yoshi Kato can be reached at yoshiyoungblood@earthlink.net

What: San José Jazz Winter Fest 2017 featuring Roy Ayers and Kim Nalley

Where: Oshman Family JCC Palo Alto, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

When: Friday, Feb. 24, at 7:30 p.m. for Ayers and Sunday, Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. for Nalley

Cost: $30-$70

Info: Go to san Jose Jazz

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