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‘Sing and Swing: Our American Songbook’: Renowned composers, musicians to play WCU

Western Carolina University will host an intimate  evening of American standards on Feb. 29.  Benny Benack III. Matt Baker photo Western Carolina University will host an intimate evening of American standards on Feb. 29. Benny Benack III. Matt Baker photo

A special production of “Jazz at Lincoln Center Presents” — a celebration of the Great American Songbook and iconic partnerships in jazz — with “Sing and Swing: Our American Songbook” will be performed Thursday, Feb. 29, at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. 

The North American tour will feature trumpeters and vocalists, as well as composers Bria Skonberg and Benny Benack III. The production will reach 45 cities across the United States and Canada, including major markets such as Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Ontario. 

“We’re both fans of the classic songbook era and the artists that made it possible. The fact that we’re still playing these songs 75 to 100 years after they were written is a testament to their quality,”

Skonberg said. “Naturally, we gravitated towards the great pairings of trumpet players and vocalists, like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Prima and Keely Smith — we’ve listened to that music as long as we have played the trumpet.”

Benack and Skonberg will lead a talented group featuring Jocelyn Gould (guitar), Mathis Picard (piano), Mark Lewandowski (bass) and Charles Goold (drums) 

The repertoire, noted co-leader Benack, will include songs such as Duke Ellington’s classic “In a Mellow Tone,” a duet featuring Skonberg on trumpet and vocals, featured in his most recent album, “Third Time’s the Charm”; Comes Love,” a nod to the inimitable Louis and Ella; “Banana Split for My Baby,” a cheeky swinger by Louis Prima and Keely Smith; and “I’m Glad There is You,” a classic by Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown. 

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“There’re a lot of familiar songs that people know and love. But, we have put fresh arrangements on these songs. And Bria and I also have some of our brand-new original material inspired by this era’s music,” Benack said. “We wanted to have a modern take on the songwriting form, so we have some of that, as well — you keep the music fresh by adding your experiences and making it relatable to the audience before you.” 

It is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s mission “to entertain, enrich, and expand a global community for jazz through performance, education, and advocacy.” As part of those efforts, the “Sing and Swing: Our American Songbook” tour will include an educational component in selected cities, with Cullowhee included on that list.  

“I didn’t grow up in a big city. I grew up in a small town,” said Skonberg, a native of Chilliwack, British Columbia. “There was no way that anything from Jazz at Lincoln Center would com e there. It will be a real pleasure to connect with people from different towns along the way — it’s going to be a joy to get to spread the word.”  

Called “one of the most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation” by the Wall Street Journal, Skonberg is a singular talent, one who has performed with everyone from Jon Batiste, Wycliffe Gordon, U2 and Sun Ra Arkestra to the nation’s top symphony orchestras. 

Skonberg’s music has also garnered tens of millions of streams worldwide. The Juno Award winner’s seventh studio album, “What it Means,” which was recorded in New Orleans, Louisiana, with the Crescent City’s finest, will be released in Fall 2024.  

The daughter of teachers, Skonberg is deeply committed to education. She is the co-founder and director of the New York Hot Jazz Camp and has served as faculty at the Teagarden, Centrum, and Geri Allen Jazz Camps.

In addition, Skonberg has presented hundreds of concerts and clinics for students of all ages, both independently and on behalf of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jazz House Kids and the Louis Armstrong House Museum.  

Benack, part of a family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, jazz notables, follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, trumpeter and bandleader Benny Benack, Sr. (1921-1986) and his father Benny Benack, Jr., a saxophonist and clarinetist who gave young Benny his first professional experience.  

An Emmy-nominated trumpeter and vocalist, Benack (affectionately known as BB3) was recognized in the 2022 DownBeat Critics Poll as a “Rising Star Male Vocalist” and a top “Rising Star Trumpeter.” 

Benack has also performed internationally as an emcee/host for Postmodern Jukebox and appeared as a trumpet soloist for Josh Groban, Diplo, fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, as well as cabaret legends such as Marilyn Maye, Melissa Errico and Ann Hampton Callaway.

To that, Benack has been a featured guest with the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops Orchestra and the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. His TV credits include appearances in the house band of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” as well as NBC’s “Maya & Marty.” He achieved online notoriety for his vocal features with the Grammy Award-winning “8-Bit Big Band,” as well as his viral hit sensation music video of “Social Call” featuring Veronica Swift.

Benack has recorded four well-received albums, “One of a Kind,” “A Lot o f Livin’ to Do,” “Season’s Swingin’ Greetings” and, mostly recently, “Third Time’s the Charm.”

To learn more about Bria Skonberg, click on briaskonberg.com. For more on Benny Benack III, go to bennybenackjazz.com.

Want to go?

“Sing and Swing: Our American Songbook” will hit the stage at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 29, in the Bardo Arts Center at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

Tickets for “Sing and Swing: Our American Songbook” are $25 for adults, $20 for senior citizens (age 65 and older) and WCU faculty/staff, $15 for students/children (non-WCU) and $5 for WCU students. Doors open at 7 p.m.

For more information on the event and/or to purchase tickets, click on arts.wcu.edu/sing-swing.

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