DEBBI EBERT AT THE MUCKENTHALER CULTURAL CENTER

DEBBI EBERT AT THE MUCKENTHALER CULTURAL CENTER – THE 2017 SEASON

A performance review & intimate interview by Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

June 15, 2017

It was the perfect, balmy, summer night for jazz under the stars. The Muckenthaler Cultural Center is located in Fullerton, California and its mission is to “provide the public with experiences that stimulate creativity and imagination, while conserving the heritage and architecture of the Muckenthaler Estate.”

The first time I was ever at this lovely, 18-room, 8.5-acre mansion was when I attended a wedding on the premises. This time, I’m exploring the backyard of this hilltop mansion, that includes a full stage with soundman, professional lighting and small round tables with picnic-type benches and seating in tiered rows up a hillside that slopes down to the stage. In its 52nd year of cultural, community programs, the Muckenthaler Center, (fondly referred to as, “The Muck”), produces more than 60 performances, festivals, special events and gallery exhibits annually. They are proud to expound their outreach sites, offering more than 6,000 hours of arts education at the “Muck” and 42 outreach sites. Thanks to the generous donation of Walter and Adella Muckenthaler, they serve more than 41,000 people every year. Tonight, every seat is full and faces are upturned towards the trio on stage who are about to perform as part of the Muckenthaler Jazz Series. Ron Kobayashi takes a seat at the grand piano. Luther Hughes mans the upright bass and Paul Kreibich swings into action behind the trap drums. They break into the familiar standard tune, “There Will Never Be Another You.”

After one song, the star is announced; Ms. Debbi Ebert. The songbird of the evening opens with Rio de Janiero Blues, setting a polished tone, with Paul Kreibich rumbling out a moderate-tempo’d-Bossa Nova beat that has the audience swaying in their seats.

Picnic baskets and snacks are allowed at these outdoor concerts and you can also buy food and drinks at the facility. I pour myself a glass of Merlot in a blue, plastic goblet, and settled back to enjoy a lovely evening of jazz.

For her second song, Ms. Ebert performs the familiar “On A Clear Day” featuring a spirited and fresh arrangement by Fred Katz (R.I.P), former cellist with the Chico Hamilton group. His arrangement gives the vocalist lots of ‘scat’ room to show off her improvisational assets. “Higher Vibe” is a waltz and its melody is impressive, with whole notes held like a vocal banner by Debbi Ebert. She exhibits powerful, perfect control and a well-executed, 3- 1/2 to 4 octave vocal range. The lyrics of “Higher Vibe” were very positive and unifying.

Her trio transforms “Night and Day” into a well-received arrangement, many in the audience humming along. The next song was “Mr. Magic”, a 1975 hit record by saxophonist, Grover Washington Jr. Afterwards, Debbi announces that the next couple of songs had been hand-picked by her audience. Prior to this performance, she sent out a request to her mailing list, encouraging them to tell her what songs they would enjoy hearing at her Muckenthaler concert. The fans responded in mass. They overwhelming voted for the hit record by Etta James, “At Last”. Ms. Ebert opened with a gospel intro, encouraging each instrument to echo her gospel moans and scats, like call and response. It was suddenly Bro. Kobayashi on piano, Deacon Hughes on bass, and Rev. Kreibich on drums. Debbi called them her pulpit and the crowd said, “Amen”! That one was so much fun. The second was a tribute to one of our jazz giants, Louie Armstrong. “What A Wonderful World” is always a crowd pleaser. Ms. Ebert dedicated this song to the troops, who protect and defend our Democracy, and she received warm applause for her sentiment. Joined on this song by another excellent pianist/composer, enter Richard Ihara, the composer of Freddie Hubbard’s 1967 hit record, “Little Sunflower.” Ihara is also an excellent vocalist and he does a very persuasive mimicry of Louis Armstrong, adding even more familiarity to the tune by walking on-stage with a microphone and sounding very much like Pops Armstrong himself. He and Ms. Ebert interact vocally on this tune, thus, ending the first set.

Ebert returned for a second set in celebration of the iconic Miss Nancy Wilson. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, I had to leave after the first set. However, judging by the huge and appreciative applause at the end of set number one, I am positive that Debbi Ebert did justice to the songs of Ms. Wilson and continued her evening of excellence.

I recently had the opportunity of chatting with Debbi Ebert about her life and music. She has been a mainstay of the Orange County jazz scene for over three decades.

DEE DEE: Are you from California?

DEBBI: “Yeah – born and raised in South Central California and went to Freemont High School. I grew up on 75th and Central.”

DEE DEE: Oh – Central Avenue! That’s where all the music was happening, right? You probably weren’t born when Central Avenue was hot and thriving.

DEBBI: “No. I wasn’t but my parents were. They were familiar with Central Avenue and they would talk about it.”

DEE DEE: Were they big jazz fans?

DEBBI: “Not necessarily jazz. My father was a huge music guy. He was more into the gospel stuff. So, when I was about four-years-old, he had already been singing with different male gospel groups. They would do the big concerts hosted by Rev. Henderson, who was producing concerts in some of those old theaters where they used to have the jazz concerts. They’d bring in the gospel music; Rosetta Thorpe, The Hummingbirds, The Ward Singers, all of those people were a part of that circuit. Our family group was called ‘The Gospel Fireballs’. I was just a kid, so, I don’t remember a lot. My brothers are gone now, so I don’t have anyone to reference that history. But I remember a lot of those people coming through those concerts. My father, Willie Sam Goldston, was a big promoter of our family gospel group. He always got our little name on the promotional billboards. That would have been the mid-60’s (‘64, ‘65, ‘66) right in there. There were the three of us and my father would play guitar. We travelled a little bit. We had our little gigs all over. And then he passed away.”

DEE DEE: Oh honey, that was hard. You were just a kid. I’m so sorry. Was it unexpected?

DEBBI: “You know, in those days, my father was what you would call a jack of all trades. He was a welder by trade. He took other odd jobs and he was always a special duty officer. He always wanted to be a policeman. He wanted to make a difference as a law enforcement officer. In those days, they didn’t let blacks into the LAPD. … He would try every year, when they had an opening, to get into the LAPD. It never worked. But he took Security work and he took a job at that FatBurger down there on Central Avenue. … That’s where he got killed. It was a horrible, tragic accident. There was a guy there who was drunk and he and my father got into some kind of tussle. A gun went off. That was that.

DEE DEE: That’s a heartbreaking story. Let’s talk about when you decided to do music professionally.

DEBBI: There’s not a long time in my life where there was no music. I’ve always been involved with music. Once I grew up, I always sang wherever I could. I sang in church and at weddings. I always maintained music in my life, but I didn’t really pick it back up professionally until I moved to Orange County. That would have been 1983 and 1984. Those were the days you would come to town and work certain O.C. venues. You and Barbara Morrison. I always knew your names. Barbara McNair used to come to town and work in Orange County all the time too. That’s when I picked music back up. I did my first play at the local black actor’s theater and met my now, husband, Richard Abraham, through that theater. That’s when I started my career as a nightclub singer. He played piano and I sang. And I’ve worked steadily ever since. I have two CD releases. My first one is “Definitely Debbi” and my second one is called, “Taking a Chance.” I’m primarily a singer. I would not ever refer to myself as a composer, but there was a play called “Black Woman’s Blues” that was performed at the Regency West Theater in Los Angeles, with Dwan Lewis, Wendy Raquel Robinson, and Vanessa Bell Calloway. I did the underscoring for it. The dialogue was set to saxophone and I wrote the music to play underneath that dialogue. I sang it to my husband and he charted the notes. But I wouldn’t call myself a composer. However, I do enjoy arranging and coming up with unique ideas for vocals and vocal harmony.”

For those of you who missed the Muckenthaler Concert, you can catch Debbi Ebert’s tribute to Nancy Wilson on July 26, a Wednesday evening, at the GEM Theater in Garden Grove. I guarantee you will be thoroughly entertained.
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One Response to “DEBBI EBERT AT THE MUCKENTHALER CULTURAL CENTER”

  1. Elena Says:

    Great Interview! Loved the concert and how Debbi honored Nancy Wilson especially. Thanks Dee Dee for coming to “our neck of the woods” in Orange County with your thoughtful review. You are an amazing entertainer and writer! Blessings, Elena Gilliam

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