Jazz was literally in the Pittsburgh air the weekend of June 16-18 as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra PNC Pops presented Ella & Louis: All That Jazz at Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts. The concert was conducted by Lawrence Loh with special guests Byron Stripling on trumpet and vocals, Marva Hicks on vocals and Robert Breithaupt on drums.
As we rode into downtown my partner and our uber driver discussed how Pittsburgh doesn’t yet have the strongest Jazz scene, but as we arrived in the Cultural District it felt like we stepped out into a scene from a movie in a different city; there was jazz on every corner due to a festival and the weather was perfect.
Our quest for an evening of jazz led us into Heinz Hall as we joined a packed house with a diverse crowd in the auditorium for the concert. The lights dimmed and the orchestra opened with a song before being joined on stage by Mr. Stripling. In the first song Stripling played only the trumpet but as the concert continued he also sang, sometimes doing both in one song. Stripling was full of energy and seemed thrilled to be in Pittsburgh for this special performance celebrating the legends Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. At times the crowd was even on its feet! Stripling welcomed Ms. Hicks to the stage and shared that she has a special passion for “Miss Ella,” and she too thrilled the crowd as she opened with A-Tisket A-Tasket. The way the vocalists synced with the orchestra was a sound and sight for all and it was incredible that just by changing the lighting, switching up songs and adding some commentary, the musicians and vocalists could make majestic Heinz Hall feel like at times a smooth jazz club and other times a fun comedy club. The crowd was treated to individual vocalist performances including a moving rendition of Saint Louis Blues by Stripling as well as the classic What a Wonderful World, and songs including Just One of Those Things and Sweet Georgia Brown performed by Hicks. My favorite parts though were when they would sing together and their renditions of It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got Swing and They Can’t Take That Away From Me stole the show!
Neither Stripling or Hicks reside in Pittsburgh, but with the remarkable talent of our own Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra setting the tone for musical excellence in a city destined to be a leader in the arts, I hope that this weekend was only a preview of a day soon when jazz is always in the air in Pittsburgh.