Melissa Merli: Highlights from year that was

The year 2013 was rough for me, with the deaths in April of two people I greatly admired and respected, then three in my own family, including my older brother, Michael.

One was Erma Bridgewater, Champaign-Urbana's beloved matriarch of jazz, who died April 2. Two days later, the incomparable Roger Ebert passed on.

Among other local arts notables who died this past year were architect Jack Baker, musician and arts lover Bob Smith, composer Peter Michalove, musician Ron Cannon, curator and African art expert Michael Conner and retired University of Illinois art Professor Glenn Bradshaw.

Of course, the arts, as always, soothed my soul.

And brought laughter, particularly with Nick Offerman's one-man show, "American Ham," in October at a sold-out Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

I never saw a show quite like his, particularly in the Great Hall.

Other highlights of the year for me, not in any order:

— Ellnora The Guitar Festival at Krannert delivered fun and great music in a big way — and led to many of us "discovering" the great gypsy-jazz guitarist and composer Stephane Wrembel.

— Hammond B organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and his "In the Beginning" ensemble, also at Krannert, prescribed and played some healing music. Smith has a generous spirit.

— The amazing Irish flutist Sir James Galway, with his wife, Lady Jeanne, also a flutist, played with the Irish Chamber Orchestra at Krannert. Galway is a unique talent with his own voice.

— The first Hatch festival, fair and art exhibition, showcasing pieces made from recycled materials, was brought to us by the I.D.E.A. Store. Engaging ingenuity.

— Choreographer Jennifer Monson's solo "Live Dance Archive" performance at Krannert Art Museum. Gutsy and visceral.

— The exhibition at Krannert Art Museum of Jacob Lawrence's monumental 41-panel "Toussaint L'Ouverture" series, created in 1938. The real thing, not reproductions.

— The Krannert Center concert featuring powerhouse singers Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright. So moving that some people wept.

— Local plays, particularly the charming "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" at the Parkland Theatre and the well-directed, well-acted "Clybourne Park" at Krannert, presented by the UI Department of Theatre.

— The 15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival, shortly after Ebert's death earlier in the month. The movies, particularly "Blancanieves," were great, and the conga line led by Tilda Swinton was unforgettable and uplifting.

— The first Pens to Lens, featuring short films made by local filmmakers, based on scripts written by local K-12 students. A great idea. Who knows what will come of it?

— Seeing the emotionally direct movie "Fruitvale Station" at the Savoy 16 with young actress Ariana Neal's family in the house. Neal, a Champaign native who lives near Atlanta, Ga., plays star Michael B. Jordan's daughter in the movie.

— Town Mountain, a great neo-bluegrass band, and all the great local bands, among them the SSG Trio made up of Chip Stephens, Joel Spencer and Larry Gray, I've enjoyed at The Iron Post in Urbana.

— The Monterey Jazz Festival concert at Krannert Center featuring vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, bassist Christian McBride, pianist Ben Green and other top-notch musicians. Despite coming down with a cold, Bridgewater never sounded better.

'Good morning, heartache'

If I were to visit New York City, the first show I would have checked out was "Lady Day," starring former UI jazz band singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, a multiple Tony and Grammy winner.

Alas, the show about Billie Holiday's final comeback concert will have its last performance today at the Little Shubert Theatre.

Despite great reviews for Bridgewater, the book of the musical received tepid reviews.

It opened in early October and was to have run through Jan. 5. But Jay Sawyer, an alternate drummer for the show who has a UI master's degree in jazz studies, said he's playing the final performance tonight.

Sawyer moved to New York City a couple of years ago, after receiving his degree here. He played often around town with various jazz groups.

He said the "Lady Day" gig was full time for him; the new closing date came as a surprise.

"We couldn't compete with 'Newsies,'" he joked. "It started off pretty well. But we took a huge hit at Thanksgiving. The holidays didn't bring the money in like I think they thought it would."

Bridgewater, who early in her career was married to Champaign native Cecil Bridgewater, a jazz trumpeter and son of Erma, likely won't lack for work, though.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

Topics (5):Art, Film, Music, People, Theater

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