With Ella Fitzgerald Tribute, Jane Monheit Pays Great American Songbook Forward

Performances and Artists

The timing is right, the voice is right and the choice of Ella Fitzgerald songs is always right. Three rights gives you Jan Monheit coming to The Smith Center June 24 with selections from her new album, The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald.

The timing was right because she connected with producer Nicholas Payton. “We had appreciated each other’s music for some time. In addition to hitting it off musically right away, we hit it off as people right away, too, and that always will lend something to your project,” Monheit said. “If you’re making music with people you love, it’s always going to have something extra special to it.”

The voice was right, obviously, as Monheit has been performing in the jazz and Great American Songbook genre since her early years. She was first runner-up in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Institute’s vocal competition at the age of 20, and her first album, Never Never Land, was voted “Best Recording Debut” by the Jazz Journalists Association and stayed on the Billboard jazz chart for a year.

The selection was right, because one can never go wrong with Ella Fitzgerald songs. And, she is one of the icons who deserves a tribute. Monheit continues to run into people who have worked with Fitzgerald. Recently, in Washington DC, her sound technician told her he had worked with the legend.

In addition to Fitzgerald, what is it about The Great American Songbook that engenders such loyalty and respect, and still attracts vocalists and musicians? “There’s a lot of us who are doing that. And, I think it’s wonderful because that body of work is a national treasure. Musically, [it’s] one of America’s great gifts to the world. It’s important that it’s kept alive. We wouldn’t have modern day pop music without it,” said Monheit. “The way it influenced all the writers who came after in terms of song form and lyric writing and everything…it can’t be measured. The fact there are so many of us who not only carry the torch and keep the history alive, but interpret these songs for new generations, I think it’s wonderful. I’m proud to be one of them.”

What is the reaction of young people who hear her perform the standards for the first time and approach her after the show? “You know, it’s funny. What I do tend to get from people who weren’t familiar with this music before is they think that I wrote all the songs. And, all I can think is, ‘Honey, I wish,’” she laughs.

Ella Fitzgerald didn’t write the songs, but she paid it forward. Jane Monheit didn’t write the songs, but she is now one of those paying it forward. Gershwin, Cole, Berlin, et. al. must be smiling at the future!

The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald performed in June of 2016 in Myron’s Cabaret Jazz.