Vanessa Williams Previews PBS’s ‘Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas’

Vanessa Williams Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas
Q&A
Courtesy of Kevin Parisi/American Pops Orchestra, Inc

Searching for a dose of holiday nostalgia? Look no further than PBS’s Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas With Vanessa Williams, airing December 15.

The event, organized in collaboration with the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation, the American Pops Orchestra, and PBS, celebrates Ella Fitzgerald’s ’60s Christmas album with performances from the track list. Along with host Williams, the special features appearances by Dee Dee Bridgewater, Norm Lewis, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Nova Payton, Dave Detwiler, and Morgan James.

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Below, Williams previews what the event has in store, pulling together a concert during COVID, and more.

What should viewers expect? I’m guessing lots of Ella.

Vanessa Williams: I hope that the music is uplifting and romantic and heartwarming, and our performances are invigorating and unique. The setting is gorgeous. We shot it in [Washington,] D.C. [in September], and then they created a winter wonderland outside, which obviously allowed us to socially distance and all of our platforms were separated. We all had tests. The musicians were separated with plexi, but also wore masks while we were performing. Iit’s an example of what we’ve all had to endure in 2020, and we did it with as much love and excitement as we possibly could.

PBS Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas Vanessa williams

Kevin Parisi/American Pops Orchestra, Inc.

How did you get involved with the project?

PBS came to me, and I’ve worked with them several times. I co-hosted PBS’s A Capitol Fourth, I’ve done Memorial Day and Labor Day, so a lot of the Capitol Series Concerts with PBS. And most of the singers that are on the bill are all Broadway people, so it was great to sing with friends. Norm Lewis, we did Sondheim on Broadway together, and Carmen Ruby Floyd, we did After Midnight together, so it was like old home week.

How long did it take to produce?

Well, we got the charts beforehand, obviously, but we only had one day of rehearsing with the orchestra before we shot. So you prepare, then you go and sing it live with them, and then you do your camera blocking, and then the day of the show you shoot. So not too much prep time, just rehearsal the day before.

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So, which songs or performances were your favorites?

Well, my favorite that I sang was the “Good Morning Blues,” which I had never sang before. I have two Christmas albums, so I’ve done a lot of Christmas music and a lot of traditional stuff, but I chose the song just because it’s not done a lot, and I always like to do stuff that’s unique and different.

That was fun, and a lot of people haven’t heard me really sing the blues that way, so I think that’ll be a nice surprise for some people that kind of put you in a box. And then when I sang “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — that was from a show [I did] in college. Frank Loesser wrote that song, and we did a review of Frank Loesser’s songs called Heart and Soul, so that just reminded me of my sophomore year at Syracuse University.

Vanessa Williams Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

Kevin Parisi/American Pops Orchestra, Inc.

It must have felt very special to put this together, given there are so few concerts right now.

When you’re a performer the end goal is to share your talents and to move people. I was really lucky to have met Ella Fitzgerald in my lifetime. The first time I won an NAACP Image Award she was in the audience applauding me. She’s my favorite female jazz singer of all time, and legend has it that she was my mom’s grandmother’s cousin. If that’s so, then I hope that I’ve gotten some of her music abilities through my mom. Both my parents were music teachers, so I definitely got music ability from both of them. It’s just wonderful to sing live again.

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Do you think the program could provide a bit of normalcy this holiday season?

Well, I think the reason why people love the holidays is tradition. You can control putting up your tree. You know exactly what’s going to happen on the day because it’s tradition, and I think that this brings back the sense of control. We can count on the tunes that we love. We can count on singing along. The tradition allows you to take a deep breath and it’s like, “Oh, I know this, and this makes me feel like I’m in control of my life for this particular second or this particular moment.”

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams, Premieres Tuesday, December 15, 8/7c, PBS (Check your local listings)