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RICH DANIELS: MAKING MAGIC – ELLA & LENA: The Ladies and Their Music

Rich Daniels and The City Lights Orchestra return to the Auditorium Theatre on November 17th for ELLA & LENA: The Ladies and Their Music, a centennial concert celebration of Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. Chicago vocalist and producer Joan Curto will be joined by many of Chicago’s top artists including E. Faye Butler, Beckie Menzie, Tammy McCann, Paul Marinaro, Tom Michael and Sophie Grimm with a 17-piece orchestra featuring songs from the Great American Songbook.

For over 4 decades, Daniels and his orchestra have been featured together with a long and distinguished list of music greats including Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Frankie Laine and many more. Daniels has been touring recently with the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration and has been engaged with the hit TV series “Empire” for the past four years.

Rich Daniels joined us for a spirited conversation on November 2nd to talk about the early days, his first big band at Brother Rice High School, the upcoming Auditorium show and developing opportunities for the next generation of musicians.


The profound musical influence of Jim Moore … “Beyond the family, my parents who were amazing, and friends, there was a man named Jim Moore. He was a trumpet player and he never made his living as a musician… He was in the clothing industry, an executive at Hart Schaffner Marx and other organizations like that. … Jim was a wonderful, giving man who played in an Army Air Force jazz band in the 1950’s. … He saved all of his arrangements and he carried them forward. … He reminded me of Cary Grant, the way he dressed, the way he held himself … a tall man who spoke beautifully and eloquently. I met him when I was 14 because his son, Michael Moore (‘the writer, not the filmmaker’) became one of my dearest friends. Jim would spend weekends and weeknights rehearsing with the band. I have a stack of letters that I keep to this day where he would encourage, support and take me to task if he saw that things were not going as they should. He was a tremendous influence on myself and many, many there young people of that time.”

On inherent ability … “It is a blend. Hard work is something you cannot take away from any artist, or someone who pursues the arts. It is required. But, there has to be an inherent ability, at some level, that is worth nurturing. There are certain things in music, and I assume in other disciplines, too, that you cannot teach people. They either have an understanding, they have that quality, that talent, you can nurture along, or they don’t.

Developing talent … One of the thrills for me on the television show “Empire” is that I am allowed to hire the young talent that we are going to put on camera and we have put over 300 young people on camera over four seasons. It is an amazing opportunity for them … film and television are a new commodity to Chicago. They have been here forever – films being made, television – but nothing to the extent currently. The movie studio Cinespace, 51 acres of movie studios, 30 sound stages, “Empire” is 9 of the 30 stages … the largest show on television now for 20th Century Fox. The opportunity for young people has been amazing on this show. Really rewarding for them and for us to bring them forward and let them shine. …musicians, composers, singers, and a wide range of disciplines that these young people bring forward aside from their musical skills. They are all quick to want to tell us what they are doing, how they can help. … It is great to see this huge appetite for opportunity … great for Chicago to have an infrastructure to support that. Cinespace has been marvelous. There are eight shows shooting there right now and it is only going to grow."

Advice to artists about the risks of overexposure on the internet … “The internet is here to stay. We all know that. It is not going anywhere. The thing I caution about is giving too much away on the internet, so that it no longer becomes a salable commodity … some day you may want to have a family, some day you may want to do something that will support yourself with your art and if you give it all away and you continue that pattern, it is going to be hard to monetize it and make a living at it. I hate to sound like the guy who is jaded around the edges, because I am not, but I want them to have a realistic picture of what their art means and how they should view it. Giving it away is not the best thing all of the time … there are certain opportunities … the internet is rampant with music and film and clips, so it’s important to do that, but you need to think about the future and how you are going to move forward. They are going to move forward in ways that you and I do not even know because they are going to outlive us and the community of how music is disseminated and programmed is going to go well beyond our imagination. So, they have to do it with caution."

ELLA & LENA at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday, November 17th… “Joan Curto is to be given a lot of credit for what she has created at the Auditorium. These annual concerts have great value … This is the centennial of Ella and Lena; they would have both turned 100 years old this year. Joan came up with the notion that we would celebrate Ela Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. The show is going to have seven wonderful singers – Joan Curto, E. Faye Butler, Beckie Menzie, Tammy McCann, Paul Marinaro, Tom Michael and Sophie Grimm – a big band … a traditional jazz ensemble of 17 musicians in the style of Goodman, Basie, Miller, Dorsey, Ellington … the theatre is magnificent. The Auditorium is one of the great palaces in the world acoustically, visually, take your pick. I like the fact that we do the entire show in front of the proscenium … we set the orchestra and the singers up in front so that we’re even closer to the audience because a lot of music can be very intimate. … Last year was very well received. … Hat’s off to Joan and Beckie Menzie(music director) for all the hard work, time and energy they have put into creating the program with the arranger, Bobby Ojeda. … It is going to be a really memorable evening. The music is going to be tremendous. The audience is going to love the selections. The artists are all geared up for it. It is a wonderful opportunity for people, especially for those who want to be exposed to this music for the first time in a live setting. Live music is something that in many ways is not as popular as it used to be. When people get a chance to experience it, they should and they can and they do find it very special. Very magical.

The orchestral arrangements … “Bobby (Ojeda) had years on the road with the Count Basie Orchestra. He is well-known and beloved in the Chicagoland area … a mature gentleman, lots of skills, a trumpet player. Once the singers and Joan decide on the selections, then they get together with Beckie to work out the song, the keys, all the things that are necessary, then they send that information to Bobby and he creates the orchestrations for the instrumentation we have agreed upon.”

The secret of success – work hard; arrive early … “Years ago, I would only look for the best possible players who were acknowledged in the community to be part of a program because everyone said, “These are the guys. These are the ladies. These are the people you want to use because they are the best.’ Well, ‘the best’ do not always represent the ‘best person’ for the job, and there are other attributes I look for in individuals when we bring them in on a show or any opportunity. Some of it is their ability to be on time, the ability to communicate, play well with others, their ability to be part of a cohesive unit … if you show up on time, for a gig, you are late. Showing up at 9:00 o’clock for a 9:00 o’clock gig doesn’t work. You have to be early. You have to prepare yourself … do whatever is necessary to get ready for that performance. … All those little things you begin to value more and more as you get older and realize there is so much more to a good performance than someone who can play their instrument at the highest level possible.”

The simplicity of a performance … “The goal is for the audience to have no idea how the sausage is made. We like to think that people realize that this didn’t just happen. If it looks effortless, then we have succeeded in what we are trying to do in the presentation that evening.”


Comments have been edited for length and clarity

ELLA & LENA: The Ladies and Their Music
The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
Friday, November 17, 2017
7:30 p.m.
Honoring the centennials of music icons Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne
Featuring: Joan Curto, E. Faye Butler, Beckie Menzie, Tammy McCann, Paul Marinaro, Tom Michael, and Sophie Grimm and Rich Daniels and the City Lights Orchestra.
For information and tickets

Visit the CONVERSATIONS ARCHIVE or iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher for conversations with Joan Curto, E. Faye Butler, Tammy McCann, Paul Marinaro and more. 


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