“A Tribute to Mr. B” (The Music of Billy Eckstine), Black Ensemble Theater. For much of his nearly five-decade career Billy Eckstine was virtually unknown outside the black music circuit, though white songwriters did ask him to record their latest tunes. But the man whose smooth, effortless baritone earned him the title of the black Frank Sinatra was a pioneer in big-band singing and its offspring, bebop and progressive jazz–introducing classic songs and vocal mannerisms imitated to this day.
The third in Black Ensemble Theater’s series of homages to African-American men (the women had their turn last season), “A Tribute to Mr. B”–written by and starring Laurence Walden–is standard Hollywood bio, with narration supplied by Phyllis Overstreet (who also plays Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald) and Kenneth Johnson (who plays a variety of people, notably bandleader Earl Hines). But most of the evening is devoted to the music. Backed by a five-piece band (led by Black Ensemble musical director Jimmy Tillman), Walden runs through a selection of greatest hits, accurately reproducing Eckstine’s phrasing and tones. Who ever thought a history lesson could be so entertaining?
–Mary Shen Barnidge