NEW YORK CITY — Ella Mae Dixon took the stage at Birdland on West 44th Street in Manhattan’s theater district on Tuesday night, March 21. The legendary jazz club, which opened in 1949 and was named for Charlie “Bird” Parker, has hosted John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Liza Minnelli, and many other stars. But that night it welcomed the 19-year-old singer who grew up in Wellfleet and graduated from Nauset High in 2021 for her solo New York City debut.
Inside, Birdland features a dark room with a sultry feel, set with chairs and small round tables, a low stage at one end. On it, three veteran jazzmen dressed in black — Sean Harkness, Dmitry Ishenko, and Rob Mitzner — waited with guitar, upright bass, and a drum set. Dixon stood in front with a microphone.
“Hey, everybody!” she said, her voice given a vintage lilt by the hint of a Transatlantic accent.
Around her neck: a string of white pearls. Her lipstick matched her bright red fingernails. She introduced herself and told the audience that she had bought her pale pink dress at Vintage in Vogue in Orleans. The skirt hung below her knees, and the short sleeves were delicately puffed.
Dixon thanked the audience for coming — the room was sold out. Then she gestured to the band, and they picked up with “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” a song by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields from the 1966 Broadway musical Sweet Charity.
“All I can say is ‘Wow,’ ” she sang. “Hey look at where I am/ Tonight I landed, pow!/ Right in a pot of jam./ What a setup! Holy cow!/ They’d never believe it/ if my friends could see me now.”
Dixon recently released her first single, “I’m Old Fashioned,” recorded with guitarist Harkness.
“I’ve always wanted to be older,” Dixon said after the show. “I can’t explain it.”
Growing up near the center of town in Wellfleet, she started singing as a young child. Her father, Zach Dixon, is an oysterman, and her mother, gardener Settie Dixon, was the singer in a rock-and-roll band that produced one album in the 1990s. Both the band and the album were called Settie. But Ella Mae liked to listen to the oldies, like Barbra Streisand.
In high school, she got into musical theater and performed with the Nauset Players. She played Tanya in Mamma Mia (spring 2019), Elsa in Frozen (summer 2019), and Cassie in A Chorus Line (fall 2019). She didn’t start formal vocal training until junior year, when she started gigging independently as a summer job.
“I was a national anthem singer,” she says. “I also did jazz gigs. I sang at PB Boulangerie.”
One such gig provided an important break: in the audience one night at Provincetown’s Tin Pan Alley was Daniel LeClaire, a performer in the New York City scene. He connected Dixon with Susie Mosher, who ran a variety show at Birdland.
Dixon moved to the city soon afterwards and performed in Mosher’s show. “She took a chance on me,” Dixon said.
Now, she added, “Birdland feels like home.” On the night of her solo debut, the audience ordered dinner and drinks but watched Dixon intently all the while. A little girl sat with her parents. Old and young couples held hands and exchanged smiles.
Dixon sang a swinging rendition of “Hound Dog” by Michael Stoller and Jerome Leiber, her skirt swishing, and then a slower version of “I’m Old Fashioned,” by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.
She said she had worked with Harkness to make the songs her own. “He told me, ‘What’s the point of doing old songs the way they’ve always been done?’ ” she said.
“Goody Goody,” by Matty Malneck and Johnny Mercer, is a standard tune from the ’30s. “We thought, what if it was done in the ska style?” Dixon said. That night, they played the song with rollicking intensity and with what she called “a 12/8 feel.” Listeners couldn’t help but bob their heads.
“Where the Boys Are,” by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, was originally a soft and tender ballad. “We gave it a rock feel with an electric guitar,” Dixon said. “We made it into a crooning conversation between guitar and voice.”
Harkness, who performs as a solo artist and accompanist worldwide and in New York’s choice venues, loves working with vocalists. He said his collaboration with Dixon was a delight. He encouraged her to choose songs for the show that she connected with lyrically and melodically.
“Right from the beginning, we were working with material that really meant something to her,” he said. Harkness said he sees Dixon’s “star on the rise.”
After the show, Dixon described seeing the happiness on people’s faces.
“I think I brought people joy,” she said. “That matters a lot to me.”
She plans on leaving her other job at an antique bookstore in New York’s midtown to pursue singing full-time.
“This is what I’m going to do,” she said. “I’ve always known that. This is my calling, and there’s no world in which I’d ever do anything else.”
Dixon is a member of the New York City Satin Dollz, a tight-harmony vocal group focusing on the music of the 1940s. Her next appearance at Birdland will be on May 9 in “The Lineup,” Susie Mosher’s variety show.
Near the end of her March 21 performance, Dixon sang “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman. Her clear voice rose above the band and above the hum of the room. In the audience, a white-haired lady gazed at the young singer and mouthed every word.