Brian Stokes Mitchell at The Music Center at Strathmore

It was a Broadway Loves Jazz kind of night at Strathmore on Friday as Brian Stokes Mitchell took to the stage to headline a tribute to the one and only Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington at the Music Center at Strathmore.

Brian Stokes Mitchell. Photo courtesy of The Music Center at Strathmore.

Brian Stokes Mitchell is Broadway’s dream come true. He has a beautiful voice, the kind that garners leads and high awards, one of a caliber that gets him cast in shows that can only be carried by a select few … shows such as Ragtime, Man of La Mancha, and Kiss Me Kate. He’s the go-to guy for leading orchestras the likes of the San Francisco Symphony, the L.A. Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Pops. When it’s time for a song, Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Slatkin, John Williams, and Marvin Hamlisch have Stokes on direct dial. Then there are his television stints on Trapper John and of late ….Glee. He sings, he dances, he’s got a great look, and he also happens to be a very nice guy. Like the guy he honored on Friday night, he ignores boundaries and lets his curiosity and his talents define his path.

Brian Stokes Mitchell worked with his pianist and arranger Ted Firth, and with David Baker and the Smithsonian Jazz masterworks Orchestra, to put his concert together. The resulting music is Ellington, but the sound is pure Stokes … a kind of Broadway, big band, swinging jazz sound that the audience loves. It feels very different from the way Ellington actually played his own music, but it plays very well.

After a quick nod to “Take the A-Train., Stokes opened the concert with Another Hundred People”, “Drop Me Off in Harlem”, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,and thenDo Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” which was very true to Ellington and featured a very pleasing trombone solo. Stokes is a pro and while he sings his heart out, he also knows how to work an audience with some fun choreography, a red shirt and pocket hanky honoring Valentine’s Day, and an Ellington-style derby. He did all of this and more, and it worked like a charm.

The Manzari Brothers. Photo Courtesy of The Music Center at Strathmore.

Nobody could ask for anything more than Stokes, but they got it in the form of his guests. First came DC’s charismatic Manzari brothers, who simply dazzled the audience with their tapping footwork during “Jump for Joy”, “Koko,” and then “Satin Doll,” which featured Stokes on vocals. John, an undergraduate student enrolled at Marymount Manhattan College, and Leo, a high school student from DC’s Field School are simply a joy to behold. Their talent, their energy, and their obvious love for each other are truly inspiring. USA, LLC

Julia Nixon. Photo courtesy of The Music Center at Strathmore.

The third guest of the night was Julia Nixon, a wonderful rhythm and blues singer who performed a soulful rendition of “I Got it Bad” a gorgeous work from Ellington’s sacred works, called “Sunday,” and then a duet with Stokes called “I’m Just a Lucky So and So.”

Towards the end of the evening, Stokes had another huge moment when he joined his pianist Ted Firth on “Sophisticated Lady”. It was beautiful.

A guy like Stokes knows the power of a finale and he found one in “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing.” Stokes, Nixon, and the Manzari brothers had the audience on their feet long before the piece ended, and rightfully so.

Ellington was never done with music. He was always aware of his time, his talent, and what he could do with both. He was driven to leave a lasting legacy and to speak to future generations through his music. He was also keenly aware of his responsibility to the many musicians and families who relied on him for both musical and personal survival. Regardless of failing health, he never, ever quit. He performed, and then he went back to his room and composed, often all night long … jazz, ballet, masses, musicals, and even opera. At the time of his death, he had not yet finished Queenie Pie, a tribute to Madame C. J. Walker, but what he did complete was a beautiful song called “I Didn’t Know About You.”  Stokes sang it like it was meant to be sung, and I think it was his best performance of the night.

I sang with Duke Ellington. My daughter’s middle name is Ellington. I know what Ellington would think about this concert and ‘Strathmore’s Discover EllingtonFestival.’ He, along with his son Mercer and every amazing musician in his orchestra, would be thrilled beyond all words and in a state of joyous disbelief. If he were here, he would survey the Strathmore stage. He would look up and be fascinated by the ceiling and would very quickly understand and appreciate its significance related to sound. Mostly though, he would look into the eyes of the people filling every seat from the front row to the very top balcony of Strathmore’s stunning performance hall, and he would be so very happy that what he did mattered. Dressed in an impeccably pressed black smoking jacket with a silk scarf wrapping his neck, he would walk to the edge of the stage. With tears brimming in his eyes and a big smile on his weathered and beautiful face, he would lift a microphone to his mouth, and he would say in that low and gravelly voice I can still hear today, “We love you madly.” Rest assured, my dear friend, the feeling is mutual. 

There’s nothing better than a live performance, especially at Strathmore. The Discover Ellington Festival continues today, with a 4pm concert of Ellington’s sacred music. This is sacred like you have never heard before, so regardless of your religious leanings, it comes highly recommended. I hope to see you there!

The Music Center at Strathmore.  Click here to purchase tickets online or call (301) 581-5100.

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