When actor-singer Brian Stokes Mitchell was growing up, he would wake up on Saturday and Sunday mornings to the strains of his father’s favorite jazz artists blaring on the stereo. At a young age, Mitchell found himself gravitating toward the sounds of Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and particularly Duke Ellington. Now 54 years old and father to a son named Ellington, Mitchell pays tribute to the great bandleader with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra on Friday, Feb. 17 at Strathmore. The event is part of Strathmore’s month-long Discover Ellington festival.
Before heading to Los Angeles to film a stint on “Glee,” Mitchell chatted from New York about Ellington’s influence on his approach to music and on the overlapping worlds of jazz and musical theater.
“I think I just had it by osmosis, an appreciation of Duke Ellington before I really even knew who he was. What’s great about the name [Ellington] is everything that’s great about Duke’s music. It has class, but it’s cool. It works in a boardroom, it works in a jazz club. It’s got this implied royalty to it, and an implied depth. When [my son] was born, he had a very old soul. That’s for me what’s in Ellington’s music. There’s a wisdom to it. There’s life in his music. There’s a depth in his music. There’s an artful exploration in his music. And he’s very original. He took this form, jazz, this truly American art form, and put his stamp on it and moved it into a new era.
“Most people know me as a musical theater performer. They asked me to conceptualize this show, and I’m going in a sense from the musical theater standpoint in that I’m using songs that were used in his shows, like ‘Sophisticated Ladies’ and ‘Play On.’ I want the evening to be kind of like going back to that era a little bit, in the ’40s. I kind of want to pay homage to Johnny Hartman and Billy Eckstine, more the baritone singers. Singers nowadays are tenors, and they scream a lot. But back then it was about crooners. It was about this kind of laid-back sexiness, and about singing in the spaces. Jazz is about let’s loosen it up. I want to be true to the original spirit of the song, but I want to loosen it up a little bit, too.
“People comment on the way that I phrase. And in my 20s, I realized, my phrasing is jazz phrasing. I don’t comply strictly with musical theater phrasing. Musical theater tends to be very one and three, and jazz is definitely two and four. (Emphasizing the second and fourth beats in music is a hallmark of jazz, blues and most contemporary popular styles.)
Also, musical theater tends to be more precise, more in the classical tradition. It comes from that lineage. Jazz comes from the lineage of African drumming. It’s from the lineage of improvisation.
“The two worlds [of jazz and musical theater] borrow from each other all the time. Jazz players have been singing and playing standards and songs from musical theater since forever. Originally those were the top songs on the radio, the Broadway songs, and tunes from Tin Pan Alley. And then Broadway has also borrowed from jazz with shows that then take the jazz from the jazz world and bring it into the theater. Ellington’s tunes are versatile. But that’s music. Music is liquid. It’s meant to be messed with and played with and stretched and pulled and pushed I think. Why not a jazz-Mozart album? That’s what makes it interesting to me.”
with Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Julia Nixon and the Manzari Brothers, Friday, Feb. 17 at 8 p.m., Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. 301-581-5100. www.strathmore.org. $39-$79.