The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts rolled out the red carpet on Sunday evening with a star-studded salute to the swing era of the 1930s and ‘40s. Under the direction of Grammy-winning jazz producer John Clayton, television sensation Megan Hilty, Broadway star Cheyenne Jackson, Tony Award winner Jennifer Holliday, Grammy Award winner and Golden Globe nominee Terence Blanchard, and 14-time Grammy Award winner Paquito D’Rivera with The Puppini Sisters paid tribute to the very best that the swing era has to offer.
Joined by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, these artists celebrated the classics of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and smooth vocals of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole.
Make no mistake about it: despite the diverse backgrounds that each of the celebrity performers brought to The Kennedy Center’s magnificent Concert Hall, the performance Sunday evening was not about them. It was about their interpretations of the iconic Big Band jazz of the 1930s and 40s.
In a musical variety show of sorts, each artist performed in a sequence just a couple of songs—creating a unique musical revue of sorts which blended a unique re-imagining of swing music through various contemporary lenses. For instance, the powerful way Jennifer Holliday sang “God Bless the Child” may not have been the way the softer-spoken Billie Holiday intended, but nonetheless gave the song a redefined character and substance. This type of exploration and definition of the era of swing music epitomized the entire performance.
The evening began with an “overture” of sorts that featured The Kennedy Center All-Star Swing Orchestra under the direction of John Clayton—whose electrifying music accompanied each artist throughout the evening. Playing a medley of “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller and “One O’Clock Jump” by Count Basie to start, the overture featured a lively dance performance by The Gottaswing D.C. Dancers as a vivacious duo of dancers did the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop to energize and loosen up the crowd after a hearty dinner and reception on The Kennedy Center’s beautiful roof terrace.
The Puppini Sisters took to the stage next, singing in perfect harmonies as they covered “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”—a major hit for The Andrews Sisters and an iconic World War II tune. The three members of the group—Italian-born singer Marcella Puppini and English singers Kate Mullins and Emma Smith—while not actually sisters, named themselves in a tribute to The Andrews Sisters, and their chemistry while performing the song underscored that this material was a time-tested staple for the group.
Fourteen-time Grammy Award winner and acclaimed clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera performed next after a brief introduction. Even while accompanied by a large jazz band, D’Rivera—originally from Cuba—stole the show and proved why he deserved each of those fourteen Grammy Awards; his solos in “Sing Sing Sing”—performed most famously by Benny Goodman on clarinet—coupled with riveting drum solos, were captivating and demonstrated his true artistry in jazz.
The Broadway stars took to the stage next. 30 Rock and Glee actor Cheyenne Jackson performed “Old Devil Moon” from Finian’s Rainbow—rendering the song imaginatively under the projected image of a young Frank Sinatra. Megan Hilty sang a cover of Nat King Cole’s renditions of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s “Almost Like Being in Love” from Brigadoon and “This Can’t Be Love” — from Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys From Syracuse – giving a grandiose air to the songs that the Broadway songstress has become well known for. The two Broadway stars later reunited for a joyous and comical rendition of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George and Ira Gershwin.
Terence Blanchard took to the stage next with his jazz trumpeting, performing Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”—before which he defined jazz music as the quintessential “I dare you!” genre of music. His rebellious attitude carried through in his rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” as his inventive riffs pierced through the Concert Hall in syncopated time.
The Paul Taylor Dance Company joined next with a series of dance numbers accompanied by The Puppini Sisters. In a series of five songs including a medley of songs from The Andrews Sisters, the dance company performed a series of up-tempo, lively pieces that showcased the vivacity of swing dance—a nice medley that rounded out the different mediums by which swing rocked the nation.
As the penultimate song, the original “Dreamgirl” Jennifer Holliday performed a rousing rendition of “God Bless the Child”—which demanded a standing ovation from the audience. The song, which started off slow and true to the original by Billie Holiday, rose to a massive climax in the final stanza as she improvised and belted out the chorus in the iconic fashion that only Jennifer Holliday can do. Over three decades after her iconic performance at the 1982 Tony Awards of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls, Jennifer Holliday proves that she still stands in a category all her own as an iconic Broadway diva.
For the finale, the entire cast came out once more to sing the title song and Duke Ellington’s jazz standard “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” With each of the artists singing the chorus in their own unique style, then coming together to sing the final refrain in unison, their rousing performance reminded us why this song—originally composed in 1931—has earned a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame and, more importantly, in our hearts.
At its heart, the Annual Spring Gala is a fundraiser, used to raise money that provides critical funding and support for The Kennedy Center’s performances, education, and outreach initiatives. The concert was a fantastic tribute to the work of The Kennedy Center and the work that the evening was intended to support—bringing together the best of the best to celebrate the performing arts, cherish a diverse array of performance styles, and continuously expand and redefine our artistic boundaries.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The 2015 Kennedy Center Spring Gala: It Don’t Mean a Thing… A Celebration of Swing played for one night only on Sunday, May 3, 2015 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to other performances at The Kennedy Center, purchase them online.