NEWPORT NEWS — A number of things have changed since the Ella Festival was first held in 1998.
The initial festival featured “seven days of artists,” said Michelle Gilliam, the cultural supervisor at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center and the director of its Ella Fitzgerald Theater.
Organizers arranged to bus local school children to the event, which then was at Christopher Newport University, to “teach kids about Ella and her legacy.”
“That first year, we brought 3,000 kids to the campus of CNU,” said Gilliam, who worked at the college at the time and has been involved in the festival since the beginning.
While the event now is just two days (April 20 and 27) and has moved to the Downing-Gross Center on Wickham Avenue, involving children hasn’t lost its importance.
“Last year, because it was her 100 th (birthday), we brought in kids and then did a big birthday party for Ella,” she said. “But this year, we are going to actually go to some schools and talk about her.”
That gives them the opportunity to “reach the thousands in a different way.”
But that’s not the only way the younger generation will be involved.
While the headliners are Jane Monheit the first Friday, and Jennifer Holliday the second, Holliday has agreed to let the jazz ensemble from Heritage High School open for her.
“They’re over the moon about it,” Gilliam said of the kids. “And we are too. … They’re really an incredible group of youth singers. They are actually the young Ellas.”
That might not be much of a stretch. The school’s Legacy Jazz Choir and some band members just returned from New Orleans, where they attended a master class at Loyola University. They also found time to work on their craft.
“Our jazz band kids did some street performing,” said Arcelia Simmons, the group’s director. “They just took the instruments off the bus and started to jam in the street.”
They did have a formal outing, performing the national anthem before an NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Pelicans.
Their performance at the Ella Festival will last between 15-20 minutes, according to Simmons, who has been at Heritage since it opened in 1996.
Simmons said it’s not the first time Heritage students have performed at the festival, noting the jazz band performed last year, and the choir a few years ago.
She said the group will open this year with “Java Jive,” followed by “The Look of Love,” a jazz ballad “When October Goes” before closing with “Love.”
But there could be a surprise.
“We may throw a solo or two in there,” she said. “It all depends on how much time we have,” Simmons said.
Monheit, a jazz vocalist who is a two-time Grammy nominee, is making her third appearance at the festival.
Her most recent album was released in 2016 and was a tribute to Fitzgerald called “The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald.” Opening for her is Jon Bibbs, a singer and songwriter from Richmond.
Holliday, a singer and actress who has won two Grammy Awards and one Tony Award, is best known for her performance in the 1981 Broadway production of “Dreamgirls.”
The first Ella Festival was held in April 1998, less than two years after Fitzgerald, known as the “First Lady of Song,” died. It was a combined effort between the City of Newport News and CNU.
After her death June 15, 1996, there were tributes from coast to coast, from the Hollywood Bowl to Kansas City to New York City, including Carnegie Hall, where she had performed numerous times in her career.
“All these places were doing something for Ella as a national treasure, and we needed to do something too because this is where she was born,” Gilliam said. “We started the planning of it in ’97 and it happened in April of ’98 for the first time.”
Ticket prices are $30-$40 for each show. However, if you want to attend both evenings, a combination package is available at a discounted rate. But that can only be purchased by calling 757-247- 8950 or in-person at the box office.
Tickets for each show can be purchased online here.