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Here's to you, Mary Ellen: A Final Farewell to a Cincinnati Jazz Vocal Legend

Mary Ellen Tanner will be missed - but her smile, bubbly personality, and astonishing vocals will never be forgotten.
Courtesy; The Jazz Half

In early May, Cincinnati lost a longtime, jazz vocalist in Mary Ellen Tanner. For decades, Mary Ellen performed in countless venues throughout the Queen City and Northern Kentucky, including the jazz staples of Chez Nora, Dee Felice, and The Phoenix. With a very large fan base and following, her light-hearted, caring personality and social nature always attracted more and more new fans along the way (including yours truly, in 2007) wishing they knew her sooner.

With an undoubtedly extraordinary voice, Mary Ellen's ability to engage audiences, giving everyone in the room a sense of knowing her like you would know a good friend, equally shone through. Her staple has always consisted of a foundation of passion and feeling whenever performing a ballad - a definitive attribute that separates great vocalists from the good ones.

In the mid-summer of 2007, my forum, The Jazz Half, had the pleasure of attending one of Mary Ellen's Sunday evening shows at Chez Nora. In remembrance of Mary Ellen Tanner, and her contribution to the Cincinnati Jazz Scene, here is a re-publishing of that show review:

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Its a hot Sunday evening in late June, and Mary Ellen Tanner is preparing to add another performance to her long list of great Cincinnati shows. On this particular evening, Chez Nora’s famous 3rd floor Jazz Club is the place to be. As the elevator ascends from the first floor dining room, the sound of a rhythm section increases through the elevator door. It stops at the third floor, the door opens, and the rich sound draws a path to the Jazz Lounge. The Rhythm Section consisting of Steve Whipple on Bass, John Von Ohlen on Drums, and Phil DeGreg filling in on Piano warms up the crowd for the show to come.

A modest, yet growing crowd inside the club and outdoor terrace draws their attention to the stage, approached by Mary Ellen Tanner. Mary’s sparkling eyes and fun smile is a true indication that everyone is in store for an entertaining evening. She opens the first set with “Beginning to See the Light”; a welcoming tune with a steady and upbeat tempo. That was followed by a piece with a similar style, “The End of a Beautiful Friendship” which, if memory serves, was a Nat King Cole tune. For the third selection, Mary decided to slow things down with “No Tears” – a somewhat melancholy tune of romance, heartbreak, and encouragement. Phil DeGreg’s piano solo contained smooth, flowing runs; adding an touch of sensuality to the piece.

Things picked back up with “Its Wonderful, Its Marvelous” with solos from Phil DeGreg on piano and Steve Whipple on Bass. Personally for me, the next selection left a lasting impression – as pleasant, tasteful, and classic as the delicious Blackened Chicken Casear Salad I enjoyed just before the show – A bossa nova number by Antonio Carlos Jobim called “Sad is to Live in Solitude”; featuring solos on piano and bass, with John Von Ohlen keeping time using the brushes in his usual silky fashion. Mary closed the first set with “You don’t know what Love is”; a slow, alluring number giving a sort of “late-night, smoky, relaxed” lounge feel. This was affirmed by the vision of couples slow-dancing upon the outside terrace.

During the intermission, the band performed two numbers; each featuring spectacular sit-in performances by two of John Von Ohlen’s students, Tina Raymond and Jake Reed, on drums.

The second set kicked off with “Gone with the Wind”, followed by two Rodgers & Hart numbers - “Lady is a Tramp”, and a slow, melodic tune from the 1940 musical Higher & Higher, “It never entered my mind”. Mary absolutely glows throughout these selections, all the while smiling and maintaining a constant social interaction with the band and audience. Another impressionable number came at the end of the second set, where Mary gave a commanding performance of “Teach Me Tonight”; leaving everyone wanting more.

Mary Ellen Tanner is not only an accomplished Jazz Vocalist, she is the quintessential Jazz & Stage performer; with the refined skill and balance of song and entertainment. Her vocals are extraordinarily smooth and fluent – pouring from the mic and through the speakers as steadily as a glass of Chardonnay. Mary Ellen Tanner’s stage presence is warm and classy; manifested by a unique quality I like to call “Gentle Energy”. Given the extensive history she has performing in Cincinnati, she is hardly a “best-kept secret”. Besides, with a Vocalist this good, who could keep it a secret?

My advice? Run, don’t walk to the next venue featuring Mary Ellen Tanner.

jh