While New Orleans has started celebrating its tricentennial, singer Quiana Lynell is making sure the city marks a centennial before year's end: Ella Fitzgerald's 100th birthday.
"Ella is one of my favorite vocalists," Lynell says. "I didn't realize I was studying (Fitzgerald) before I even knew what I was doing. I could sing 'Blue Skies' — it's the first song I can remember. She scats in it and I could sing the whole song note for note."
Backed by a big band, Lynell has performed a Fitzgerald tribute in Baton Rouge. On Nov. 25, she's joined by the Preservation All-Stars to perform songs from throughout Fitzgerald's career, including "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)," "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."
Lynell recently has been focused on the music of Sarah Vaughan. She won the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition Nov. 12, claiming a $5,000 prize and a recording contract with Concord Records. Lynell was selected as one of five finalists from more than 600 singers. The final round was judged at a concert in New Jersey (Vaughan's home state).
"These things can psych you out, because it's jazz and everyone wants to show they have the best chops and prove they've been studying," Lynell says. "The finalists (included) people who taught at Berklee (College of Music) for 12 years — you're looking at all these singers, and I didn't want to psych myself out. ... You've got to be who you are. I picked songs I love to do. I was like, 'Think of this as another night at Snug (Harbor).'"
While the competition is for jazz vocalists, Lynell trained in classical music at LSU and draws on jazz, blues, R&B and other genres. She chose a trio of songs to perform as a sort of storytelling sequence.
"I picked songs about love, but not happy love," she says. "My first was my song 'Love Me.' The words are 'Love me or leave me alone.' If you're not going to love me, then leave me alone. Then I went into 'After You've Gone.' It says I am going to beg one more time for this to be right. 'After you've gone and left me crying, there's no denying you'll be blue, you'll miss the best thing you've ever had.' At the end of the song, I get down and dirty, because the blues lives in everything I do. I slowed it back down. 'You're going to want some of this hugging / You're going to miss this loving / Your key's not going to fit in my lock no more.' I got a standing ovation for that."
Lynell finished with Irma Thomas' "Hip Shakin' Mama."
The recording contract comes at an opportune time. Lynell has been working with trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard on her first full album, and they've already recorded a few songs. The album will include a new arrangement of "Love Me," original songs and some standards, and Lynell expects to release it in July or August 2018.
The competition follows a series of highlights for Lynell, who quit a full-time teaching job last year to focus on her performing career. She is currently an adjunct professor at Loyola University New Orleans, but in the last year, she delivered a TED Talk that garnered attention and performed with Blanchard in Poland. She and Blanchard are scheduled to perform together in Detroit in December, and she's looking to do more touring.
"The stage is my thing," she says. "(Under) the lights is when I come to life."