Live Jazz: A Tribute to Bill Henderson at Catalina Bar & Grill

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA.  The line waiting to get in to Catalina Bar & Grill at 7:30 Thursday night stretched all the way back to the jazz venue’s nearby garage.  And it was moving slowly.  But there was no sign of anyone leaving.  Not for this performance.  Not with a stellar assemblage of talented performers awaiting their turns to celebrate the remarkable life and musical accomplishments of veteran singer/actor Bill Henderson.

Bill Henderson
Bill Henderson

And the anticipation was enhanced by the awareness that the 87 year old Henderson was already in the club, surrounded by friends, waiting for the music to begin.

Before the live entertainment began, however, the full house audience was treated to a video documentary.  Produced by Merle Kreibich, the video chronicled the remarkable Henderson career – as a singer and an actor whose impressive talents were apparent even in the black and white images of his youthful appearances on film and recordings.

But the live show was the heart of the evening, a  procession of singers and musicians, all eager to offer their own unique tributes to Henderson. Here’s the line up:

Melissa Morgan
Melissa Morgan

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First up: singer Melissa Morgan offering soul styled renditions of ‘Sleeping Bee” and “Accentuate the Positive.”  Filled with energy and spunk, she got the evening underway with a hard driving take off.

Denise Donatelli
Denise Donatelli

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Next: Denise Donatelli applied her warm, embracing  voice and intimate story-telling to a contrasting pair of appealing tunes, “Social Call” and “Skylark.” Donatelli can do no wrong as an interpretive vocalist.  And her reading of the Mercer/Carmichael standard was one of the evening’s memorable highlights.

Billy Valentine’s two songs – “I’ve Got A Woman” and “You Don’t Know Me” – delivered with convincing intensity – were reminders of the blues roots in Henderson’s music.

The musical emphasis shifted dramatically with the arrival on stage of Finis Henderson, Bill Henderson’s nephew.  Offering a soaring, musically dramatic interpretation of Puccini’s tenor aria “Nessun Dorma” from the opera Turandot, he affirmed the diverse musical talent in the Henderson genes.

Janis Mann
Janis Mann

Jazz singer Janis Mann added her soaring, Sarah Vaughan influenced style to a diverse pair of tunes, moving from the rhythmic groove of “Old Devil Moon” to the lyricism of  “You Taught My Heart To Sing.”  She was backed by Eric Reed, ably replacing Mike Lang in the piano chair.

Mark Winkler was up next, enjoying every minute of his delightful encounter with Bobby Troup’s “I’m Such A Hungry Man,” and wrapping his solo set with a selection from his new album of Laura Nyro songs.

Mark Winkler and Cheryl Bentyne
Mark Winkler and Cheryl Bentyne

Before he left the stage, however, he was joined by Cheryl Bentyne, pairing up on a joyous romp through Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.”

Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell

Next, in the evening’s highlight instrumental set, veteran guitarist Kenny Burrell showcased his always appealing blend of rhythmic swing and melodic tenderness with a .  warm take on “It Might As Well Be Spring.”

Ernie Andrews
Ernie Andrews

Appropriately, the non-stop music reached a climax with the arrival on stage of the inimitable Ernie Andrews.  Two years younger than Henderson, but very much the same generation, Andrews recalled an era in which jazz artists were not embarrassed to reach out to their audiences in entertaining fashion.  His jaunty versions of “Time After Time” and “All Blues” were the perfect climax for a memorable musical tribute.

Live performance photos by Faith Frenz.

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