Jazz Concert honors Ella Fitzgerald

Photo by Dana Pana ’20  A Mount Holyoke jazz ensemble performs at the “Ella’s Swella-a!” .

Photo by Dana Pana ’20

A Mount Holyoke jazz ensemble performs at the “Ella’s Swella-a!” .


During Family and Friends weekend, Chapin Auditorium hosted a crowd of parents and students for “Ella’s Swell-a!,” a concert put on by the Mount Holyoke Jazz Society in honor of Ella Fitzgerald and what would have been her 100th birthday. The concert featured the Mount Holyoke College Jazz Ensembles with Big Band, Vocal and Chamber Jazz. The ensembles played a variety of songs, including recognizable Fitzgerald hits “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” and “Summertime.”

Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer who is often referred to as the “First Lady of Song” for her accomplishments in music. According to a PBS article, “Something to Live For,” Fitgerald’s career lasted almost 60 years, and in that time, she sold more than 40 million records and won 14 Grammys, including one for lifetime achievement. Mark Gionfriddo, Jazz director, explained why the ensembles decided to showcase Fitzgerald. “The reason being that even more than say, Frank Sinatra, Ella is really associated with American popular song,” he said. 

According to the concert’s program, the three jazz ensembles are relatively new additions to Mount Holyoke. The first jazz band was created in 1999 by Sarah (Russo) Pashe ’01 and Gionfriddo. According to Gionfriddo, Pashe was one of his jazz piano students who, after realizing there was enough interest to start a jazz band, circulated a signup sheet. Once 20 people signed up, Gionfriddo held auditions for what would become the Big Band ensemble. The Big Band ensemble started as a small chamber band of seven people and grew over the years. Today there are 20 players in the band, including players from outside Mount Holyoke’s campus. The Vocal Jazz ensemble originated when, during the early years of Big Band, there was an interest in singing for the band. The third ensemble, the Chamber Jazz ensemble, is for the first chair musicians of Big Band. It was created in 2000 so that advanced musicians could work on their improvisational skills.

“I really like the community we have in Big Band and also the larger community of jazz,” said Violet Fortier ’18, the Big Band and Chamber Jazz coordinator for the Jazz Ensembles.

The jazz concert, a Family and Friends weekend tradition, used to be held in McCulloch but was moved to Chapin in 2008 to support a bigger audience. The concert was also moved from Sunday to Friday.

“[Student Programs] asked us to move to Friday to be kind of the big, splashy thing to start off the weekend with,” Gionfriddo said. 

In addition to performing, the Mount Holyoke Jazz Ensembles hold fundraisers for the jazz program and host social events. The ensembles will hold three more concerts this year. Their next performance, Hot Jazz On A Cold Night, takes place Dec. 9.