|A memorable debut for jazz at the National Theater.|
Mary Stallings hit all the right notes in her Dec. 23 Prague debut at the National Theater. The American jazz virtuoso vocalist sang pitch-perfect classics from Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and others, including in her program Christmas favorites, tributes to the rich Czech musical heritage and to the great Czech leader Václav Havel.
The evening was memorable both for Stallings’ sublime voice and the historical significance of the event. Accompanied by her American pianist David Udolf and local musicians Vincez Kummer (on bass) and Marian Ševčík (on drums), Stallings infused blues, soul and gospel into her renditions of jazz standards and holiday favorites like “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “White Christmas.” On a bittersweet day, she struck the right notes of love, appreciation, respect, celebration and solidarity.
The first-ever jazz show at the National Theater was billed as a Christmas Concert, and it was that and much more. The night was also a commemoration and celebration of the life of Václav Havel on the day of his funeral at nearby Prague Castle. As Bill and Hillary Clinton paid their respects to President Havel during the day, accompanied by current U.S. Ambassador Norman Eisen, Stallings did the same at night. Following a moment of silence, she told the near-capacity audience that the concert would commemorate President Havel, the great world citizen and statesman who fought for human freedom and dignity.
Wearing a floor-length emerald green dress and looking not at all her 72 years of age, the statuesque Stallings warmed the crowd with “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” followed by Cole Porter’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” She then introduced herself, calling the concert a “heartfelt evening to commemorate the memory of Václav Havel and the legacy he left with us of freedom, which we all stand for.” By the time she finished her next song, a soulful version of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” that she dedicated to Havel, there was not a dry eye in the house.
That heart-melting tribute was followed by upbeat love songs and swing standards, reminding us that life is for the living. Called back onto the stage by two standing ovations, Stallings concluded with an encore of Ellington’s “Love You Madly.” The diversity of the musical program was testament to the breadth and universality of jazz, which the artist calls the music of brotherhood.
The remainder of the program was varied and thoughtful, with songs by Ellington, Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Billie Holiday, George and Ira Gershwin, Billy Strayhorn, Bing Crosby and more. When Gershwin’s “Summertime” lyrics “You’re gonna spread your wings and take to the sky” were sung, it was hard not to think of Havel. There was a tenderness and sophistication to the program attributable to the quality of the occasion, the performer and Stalling’s feeling, shared with this writer in an interview following the afternoon sound check, that Europeans have a unique appreciation for jazz.
Commenting on what she learned from performing with jazz legends like Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines, Stallings said that only now does she realize what a privilege and gift it was to be schooled by such great musical innovators. She said that “singing is nothing but a conversation through song,” adding that she hopes “my music will inspire others to feel.”
Stallings paid tribute to Prague’s and jazz’s rich musical heritage, praising the beauty of the Golden City. Her only off-note was her understandable difficulty in pronouncing the names of her bassist and drummer. Otherwise, she proved to be a living legacy to jazz, which she calls “America’s gift to the world.”
On this special and poignant evening, the singer delivered a wonderful gift, making those present feel so much through her artistry. We can only hope that a new holiday tradition has begun in Prague: Jazz at the National Theater with greats like Mary Stallings.
Thanks to guest reviewer Bill Cohn for this report.