(LEE, Mass.) – Guitarist Duke Robillard, whose rock, blues, swing, and jazz credits include playing with Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Ruth Brown, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and his own group, Roomful of Blues, will join a reunion concert by the New Black Eagle Jazz Band at the Lee Meeting House on Saturday, June 17, as part of the sixth annual Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend, which also includes a tribute to legendary vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, featuring Wanda Houston.
In addition to the two ticketed concerts, the four-day festival will include several free events spanning Father’s Day weekend, June 15-18, including a fine art show, al fresco dining, daytime jazz, a wine and beer tasting under a tent in Church Park, and other activities.
A collaboration of Berkshires Jazz, Inc., Berkshire Gateway Preservation, Inc., and the Lee Chamber of Commerce, and supported by a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the affair takes place in the western Massachusetts town of Lee, the “Gateway to the Berkshires.” The principal performing venue is the Lee Meeting House (a.k.a. Lee Congregational Church), 25 Park Place. The concerts will be bracketed by a free film screening on June 15, and a jazz brunch on Sunday, June 18.
The headline concerts kick off on Friday, June 16, when the Vermont Jazz Center Big Band and Wanda Houston celebrate the 100th birthday of the first lady of song, Ella Fitzgerald. Performing and breathing new life into the same musical arrangements used by Fitzgerald, the concert includes music she performed with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others. Featuring acclaimed vocalist Wanda Houston singing Fitzgerald’s renowned parts, the Vermont Jazz Center Big Band, a 16-piece ensemble of area professionals, is led by music director Rob Freeberg.
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 … and perhaps the first jazz artist to become a household name. One of today’s outstanding interpreters of vocal jazz and blues, Wanda Houston has loved — and sung along with — Fitzgerald’s music since she was a young girl. Originally from Chicago, 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. 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 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. The band is directed by trumpeter Rob Freeberg and features many top-flight ensemble players and soloists.
New Black Eagle Jazz Band (photo Frederic S. Sater)
On Saturday, June 17, the New Black Eagle Jazz Band — one of the longest-standing, best-known and highly respected traditional jazz groups — returns to the Berkshire Gateway Jazz Festival after a three-year hiatus. Celebrating its 45th anniversary in 2016, the band has dozens of audio recordings and DVDs to its name, including one that garnered a Grammy Award nomination. Of their prowess and creativity, the late New York Times critic John S. Wilson wrote that the band is “So far ahead of other traditional bands … there is scarcely any basis for comparison.”
In 2009, the Black Eagles teamed-up with famed guitarist Duke Robillard for a recording called “Nothing But the Blues.” After many years, they are reunited exclusively for the Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend.
Duke Robillard had his first band in high school, and he was fascinated from the beginning by the ways in which jazz, swing, and the blues were linked. In 1967, he formed Roomful of Blues, and the band was tight enough and tough enough to accompany two of its heroes, Big Joe Turner and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson on recordings and in live appearances. The Grammy Award-nominated guitarist won the Blues Music Awards (formerly W.C. Handy Awards) for Best Blues Guitarist four times. He also played on Bob Dylan’s multiple Grammy Award-winning 1997 comeback album, “Time Out of Mind,” and briefly toured with Dylan.
Over the course of its five year history, the Gateway festival has featured NEA Jazz Master Phil Woods, renowned touring artists such as Karrin Allyson, Bobby Sanabria, Frank Potenza, and the only authorized George Shearing tribute band; regional favorites such as the Greg Caputo Big Band, the Amherst Jazz Orchestra, Charles Neville, the Lucky Five; Sonny and Perley, and the New Black Eagle Jazz Band; and rising stars such as Justin Kauflin and Bria Skonberg.
Tickets for each concert are $25 in advance, $30 on the day of the event. They can be purchased online at Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend, where schedule updates are posted regularly, and at several locations in the Berkshires, including the Lee Chamber Visitor Center. A jazz documentary, title to be announced, will be shown on Thursday, June 15.