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Vermont Jazz Center Presents its Annual Big Band Gala: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, f. vocalist Wanda Houston

Today’s date: Nov. 25th
Concert date – Friday, December 2nd
For immediate release

Press Release
Contact Eugene Uman, Vermont Jazz Center, 802 254 9088,

Short Summary
Who: The VJC Big Band under the direction of Rob Freeberg with guest vocalist Wanda Houston
What: Swing-dance to the music of the Great American Songbook while the VJC Big Band pays tribute to renowned singer, Ella Fitzgerald
When: Friday, December 2nd at 8:00 PM
Where: The Vermont Jazz Center, 72 Cotton Mill Hill, #222, Brattleboro, VT 05301
Tickets available: online at, by email at, by phone at 802-254-9088, in person at In the Moment Records, 143 Main Street, Brattleboro, VT 05301.

Vermont Jazz Center Big Band Gala with guest vocalist Wanda Houston Celebrates the Music of Ella Fitzgerald and Raises Money for Scholarship Fund

The Vermont Jazz Center will present its annual big band swing gala on Friday, December 2nd at 8:00 PM paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, one of the greatest jazz singers in history. The performance will celebrate Fitzgerald’s centennial birthday anniversary by featuring arrangements she performed with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others. All proceeds will support the VJC’s Scholarship Program. The VJC Big Band is comprised of area professionals, is led by music director Rob Freeberg and administrated by band manager Sherm Fox. Acclaimed vocalist Wanda Houston will front the band for this gala performance, an annual concert that has evolved into one of the VJC’s most popular events.

Mel Tormé referred to Ella Fitzgerald as the “high priestess of song.” Perry Como called her “one of my all-time favorites” and Johnny Mathis claimed she was “the best there ever was.” Dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. In her lifetime she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums. She worked with jazz greats including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. Outside of the arts, Fitzgerald had a deep concern for child welfare and frequently made generous donations to organizations for disadvantaged youths. In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Medal of Arts. It was one of her most prized moments. France followed suit several years later, presenting her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award. Yale, Dartmouth and several other universities bestowed her with honorary doctorates.

The Vermont Jazz Center is using Ella Fitzgerald’s upcoming 100th birthday (April 25, 2017) anniversary as an opportunity to honor and celebrate Ella’s immense contributions to jazz music and the advancement of race relations. Born into a poor, working class family in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1917, Fitzgerald was orphaned at the age 15. She ended up working odd jobs and singing on the streets of New York, barely scraping by and often homeless. In the fall of 1934 at the age of 17, Fitzgerald won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, becoming the first female performer to earn this distinction. This recognition opened doors and lead to a musical bond with bandleader/drummer Chick Webb with whom, in 1938, the then 21 year old Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks.

Ella Fitzgerald is now a legend and is one of the few artists in jazz to have become a household name. Her music is enjoyed by listeners of all genres. Fitzgerald’s discography is extensive and is noted for its loving inclusion of numerous “songbooks,” which are album collections of songs that feature the work of individual composers like Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jonny Mercer, Jerome Kern and Antonio Carlos Jobim. She guested in TV specials with Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé and recorded top-selling albums with Louis Armstrong, the Oscar Peterson Trio, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and many others. Although she passed away in 1996 due to complications related to diabetes, she lives on in the hearts of her numerous admirers through her enduring music and through the good work of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. Fitzgerald established her foundation in 1993 for three purposes: 1) To create and foster educational opportunities for children and music students in need; 2) To provide the disenfranchised with health care, food, shelter and counseling; and 3) To provide assistance for research in diabetes, vision problems and heart disease. This foresight enables her name to continue to spread through the deeds of young music students who have benefited from her magnanimity.

Playing the part of Ella Fitzgerald for the VJC’s gala concert is singer Wanda Houston. Ms. Houston has loved and sang along with Fitzgerald’s music since she was a young girl. Originally from Chicago, Ms. Houston grew up singing gospel music in church and with her family’s theater group. She has led an active career as an actress performing on the grand stages of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Broadway; she toured Europe as the wicked stepsister in “Sisterella” (for which she won “Best Supporting Actress in a Musical” by the NAACP) and has held lead rolls in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Hello Dolly” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Ms. Houston was part of the gospel group Broadway Inspirational Voices (BIV) with whom she performed on PBS’s Great Performances and earned a Grammy nomination. She has shared the stage with Oleta Adams, Patti Austin, Eartha Kitt, Liza Minelli, Pattie Labelle, Joe Cocker, Celine Dion and Barbara Streisand. Wanda Houston sings jazz with authenticity and passion. Like Fitzgerald, she is a great singer as well as a superb storyteller; she colors the spaces between her songs with fascinating stories of her youth and the trials and tribulations of life on the road.

The VJC Big Band is directed by trumpeter Rob Freeberg and features many top-flight soloists. Rob Freeberg was Director of Bands at New Rochelle High School; he also led his own professional big band and a community big band in Westchester County. Freeberg received awards from the New York State School Music Association, and conducted high school performances at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. He currently serves on the Jazz Center board of directors and directs the VJC Sextet as well as the Bellows Falls and BUHS Jazz Workshops.

The Vermont Jazz Center Big Band is a professional community band that comes together under the auspices of the VJC to rehearse and take on projects. In years past, annual concerts have saluted Terry Gibbs, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, have performed charts sung by Frank Sinatra and have hosted guest vocalists such as Kevin Mahogany, Rob Fletcher, Samirah Evans, Jill Connolly, Amanda Carr, Mark Anagnostopulos and Rebecca Holtz. Other performances have featured saxophonists Houston Person and Scott Mullet. In 2011, the VJC paid tribute to the Mambo Kings by joining forces with timbalero Eguie Castrillo. The VJC Big Band is comprised of the following musicians: Trumpeters Charlie Schneeweis, Joe Conti, Rick Anderson and Don Anderson; trombonists John Wheeler, Riley Goodemote, Bob Thies, Rob Skrocki; saxophonists Michael Zsoldos, Bob Stabach, Larry Tutt, Nick Pelton, Sherm Fox; the rhythm section is Eugene Uman (piano), David Picchi (bass) and Steve Rice (drums).

On Friday December 2nd, come enjoy an evening of swing-dance at the Vermont Jazz Center and find out why Ella Fitzgerald was considered the “first lady of song” and why composer Richard Rodgers claimed “whatever she does to my songs, she always makes them sound better.” Wanda Houston will interpret Fitzgerald’s songs and will project vibrant life into the same musical arrangements used by Ms. Fitzgerald. The music is tailored for dancing and will include tempos perfect for myriad of dance steps including the Fox Trot, Two Step, Charleston and even the Cha Cha. Shine your shoes and come prepared to dance to the powerful force of a live band with a vivacious singer. The money raised from the annual big band gala helps fill the coffers for the VJC Scholarship Fund.

This concert has been made possible due to the organizational skills and financial generosity of Band Manager Sherm Fox and Musical Director Rob Freeberg. It is sponsored by VJC friends Dianne Gallo, Steve Lieberman and Henry Uman with special thanks to the Vermont Arts Council, WVPR, Chris Lenois of Green Mountain Mornings (WKVT) and New England Public Radio for their generous efforts as publicity sponsors.

Admission, which includes a delicious desert buffet, is $25 plus for general admission, $30 plus for reservations that include reserved seating. For local high school students, there is a special fund available to subsidize admission (please contact the VJC for details). Purchase tickets online at, by email at, at In the Moment Records in downtown Brattleboro, or call the VJC ticket line at 802-254-9088, ext. 1 (a $1 surcharge per ticket will be charged for all tickets purchased with a credit card). Tickets can also be purchased at the door. This concert is handicapped accessible, but please call in advance (802 – 254 – 9088) if someone in your party will require the use of an elevator. Purchase your tickets early. It is anticipated that this concert will sell out quickly. Dance the night away at the Vermont Jazz Center’s tribute to Ella Fitzgerald on Friday, December 2nd at 8:00 PM.