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Hometown Diva

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 8/6/2003

Ethel Ennis

Rams Head Tavern, Sunday, Aug. 3


Ethel Ennis turned 70 last November and she doesn't gloss over it. When the singer appeared at the Rams Head Tavern Sunday, she delivered an expert comic monologue about aging at her own expense. As the Stef Scaggiari Trio vamped behind her, Ennis complained that her headlights had become footlights and her buns had become flapjacks.

Eventually, the vamp subsided into Scaggiari's softly caressed piano chords, and the mood switched from burlesque to poignancy. Ennis eased her way into Bernard Ighner's "Everything Must Change," and gave this overworked standard new life by understating the lyrics. Where most singers use the song to show off every note-twisting, roof-rattling trick of the trade, Ennis turned the song into a soft-spoken conversation with the audience. She was sharing her thoughts on growing old, but every line was perfectly phrased, every note precisely pitched.

It was a reminder of how good a singer Ennis has been. Forty years ago, she was poised on the cusp of stardom. She had won the 1961 Playboy Jazz Poll for Best Female Singer. She had starred at the Newport and Monterey festivals. She had toured Europe with Benny Goodman. She had sung onstage with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong. She had been publicly praised by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and she had recorded for RCA, Jubilee, Capitol, and Atco.

But stardom on the level of a Nancy Wilson or an Abbey Lincoln never happened. Ennis lacked the killer instinct to sacrifice everything for fame, and her love of a goofy joke undercut the femme-fatale image expected of a jazz diva. She decided that simply being the diva of her hometown of Baltimore was good enough, and that's the role she has happily inhabited for the past 30 years.

She performs a lot less often these days--two dates a year at the Rams Head, maybe a concert at Artscape or the Meyerhoff, the occasional tour to Europe or Asia, selected festivals in North America. We can no longer take it for granted that we can hear Ennis whenever we like.

On Sunday, after two swinging instrumentals by the Scaggiari Trio, Ennis took the Annapolis club's stage with a rhinestone spider brooch pinned to a black blouse that fell off her shoulders. Her hair was steely gray, but her voice had conceded little to the years. She sounded relaxed even as she belted out Duke Ellington's "I Love You Madly" with snappy accents; she even added a comic, half-spoken bridge about her own life in Baltimore.

This was typical of the liberties Ennis took with her material. She not only slowed "Body and Soul" into a ballad, but she also spiced it with Mark Russell's funky electric-bass fills. She emphasized the bawdy implications of "Honeysuckle Rose," and then taught horn parts to the audience. She added a scat imitation of a trombone to "They Put the Last Clean Shirt on My Brother Bill" and a herky-jerky rhythm to Joan Armatrading's "Sometimes I Don't Wanna Go Home."

At one point, Scaggiari, Russell and drummer Ryan Diehl played the pulsing riff from Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" as Ennis sang George Gershwin's "Summertime" on top. It fit surprisingly well, but the bigger surprise came when Ennis shifted to the cry of an Arabber, those peddlers who sell groceries from horse-drawn carts in Baltimore's alleys. Maybe she never achieved the fame predicted for her, but who else but Baltimore's own diva could make Jackson and Gershwin the set up for "Red to the rind, Lady, we got 'em all the way red, watermelons"? (Geoffrey Himes)

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