Last weekend Terry Teachout devoted his Saturday Wall Street Journal column to a consideration of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Teachout disussed his deep enjoyment of Billie Holiday’s work by contrast with that of Ella and Sarah. I quoted at length from Teachout’s column and expressed my disagreement in “Billie, Ella or Sarah?” I invited readers with thoughts on Teachout’s column to send us a message. The messages rolled in over the next several days — thoughtful, impassioned, knowledgeable, interesting. Who could ask for anything more?
Among them were two that I know were from working musicians (Tom Spaulding and Joe Vass) and one from a self-identified horn player (Brian Adams). Almost everyone who wrote had something of interest to say. In the continuation of this post, I simply quote the messages verbatim after the name of the author. Sincere thanks to all who wrote, and to Terry Teachout — a guy who must be the best working critic in the country — for provoking my post. Teachout is the regular theater critic for the Journal and the regular music critic for Commentary; he blogs at About Last Night.
Here we go…listen up!
Dr. Stephen Marmer:
I’m a big fan of Ella Fitzgerald too. I’ve always considered her the best female non-opera singer ever. Her pitch was flawless; her rhythmic sense superb; her enthusiasm infectious. I respect Terry Teachout very much and always find his insights rewarding. I would never disparage Billie Holiday. But I still think Ella is tops.
One brief story about her character. In college I was a member of the University of California Men’s Glee Club, then a true “Ivy League Style” singing group that was separate from the music department. Every year on the Thursday prior to the Christmas break we would go into San Francisco and tape a Christmas TV show. Following the show we would go from store to store and hotel to hotel serenading passers-by with Christmas and Chanukah songs. We learned that Ella always played the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel that season. We managed to find out when she would emerge from her room and which elevator she would take to her performance. We lined the hallway and when she got out of the elevator we began to sing to her. She was thrilled and invited our entire group to see her show as her guests. We even got to go to the front of the room to sing three numbers with her. What a great lady!
When it comes to male singers the choices are both larger and more difficult. Nat King Cole has always been my top choice. But how can anyone ignore Tony Bennett, Fred Astaire (whose voice was idiosyncratic but whose musicality was peerless), Bing Crosby, and yes, Frank Sinatra.
Yet for me the absolutely finest non-classical musician of the twentieth century, both for sheer ability and for his impact on music itself, was Louis Armstrong. One can argue among Caruso, Chaliapin, and Callas as the most important opera stars, Toscannini or Furtwaengler as the most important conductors, Heifitz, Kreisler, or Oistrach as the greatest violinist, Rubenstein or Horowitz as the preeminent pianist. But in the popular realm my votes go to Ella, Nat, and Satchmo.
P.S. With the encouragement and urging of Hugh Hewitt, I will be starting my own modest blog in a few weeks. I’ll keep you posted.
A quick comment on these great singers.
I had always thought of Ella Fitzgerald, from seeing her in the early 1960s, to whenever I heard her, as a singer with a great voice but one who didn’t really appeal that much, because the music was no more than upbeat popular jazz with lyrics that didn’t amount to much. In retrospect, the lyrics weren’t interesting enough to try to find real meaning to express. And there was better music for dancing, so I never really listened to her much.
In contrast, Billie Holiday always had lyrics worthy of finding ways to identify with and express, and many of her songs were the opposite of pop jazz, you really couldn’t dance to them. But if I wanted to hear something soulful, Billie would be near the top of the list. (Ray Charles’ music of the 1950s, the Atlantic years, was the music that expressed soulfulness the most for me at the time, partly because it was so searing as expressed by his voice, and partly because a lot of it was upbeat, and I was in my early teens at the time.)
So it was much later that I discovered how wonderfully expressive Ella could be, how she could make a lyric hers, make a great singing performance sound almost like she was talking to you. It just had to
do with her material. I highly recommend you listen to “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “Lush Life.”
P.S. About Sarah Vaughn: I agree that despite her great voice, she doesn’t really express lyrics in an interesting way. I bought a couple of her CDs after watching Ken Burns’ Jazz series, but don’t play them. The only song of hers I really enjoy, but I enjoy it a very great deal, is “Broken Hearted Melody.” Her version of “Lullaby of Birdland” is good, but so is most everyone else’s, it’s just a great song.
No, not Billie Holiday–who squawked a miserable impersonation of a singer. (I acknowledge I’m a heretic on this one). She never gave any sign she understood the actual music of the songs she sang. She just knocked off Louis Armstrong’s mannerisms without any touch of his genius, including his ability to get inside the song and then elevate it.
No also to Sarah, who indulged the egoistic fallacy that flourished during the “bebop” era and still infects jazz playing to this day. A true musician understands that music is not about the performer and her tricks. She was the true forerunner of all the American Idol wailers and National Anthem wreckers whose sheer awfulness requires that I clap my hands over my ears even in public (thus making me embarrass my wife yet again).
Yes to Ella Fitzgerald, who sings the song so beautifully we naturally recognize the beauty of the singer as well. She doesn’t have to work to be noticed; she gives no sign she cares about that. She glories in the music, and that becomes her glory.
(While we’re on the subject, Terry Teachout also fails to understand Ira Gershwin’s lyrics and the ways they served the songs to which they were so integral.)
Terry Teachout does good work in general; that’s why it’s so surprising how often he’s wrong on the particulars.
I read with interest the posts on three of my favorite female jazz artists. There is no doubt in my mind but that the crown belongs to Ella. I think it’s interesting that music critics can downplay Ella’s body of work while her singing colleagues can’t speak highly enough of her (Sinatra, Torme, Bennett, and so on rate her the very best, as I’m sure you know). As for myself, I always believed that since Ella made happy art, as opposed to the tortured drama of Billie or the operatic virtuosity of Sarah, she was just too accessible to be counted on their level. (I guess my cynicism is showing.)
Contrast those happy Ella sounds though with the often tragic events of her life and listeners might rate her skills higher. It could actually have been easier to sing the blues rather than the generally optimistic Great American Song Book. Or maybe we fans like Ella so much because of the three, she’s the easiest to sing along to. Deceptively so. Ever notice there are no real Ella imitators?
There have been times in my life when Billie’s slow, dark and rough style really spoke to me and others when Sarah’s fancy flights thrilled me, but I always come back to Ella. Is that what makes it art?
After reading your post on Ella and company, then the posting today I thought I