Today is the anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. She was a remarkable artist. I started listening to Ella thirty years ago in the moving Pablo recordings she made toward the end of her career with Joe Pass (when her voice was begining to fray) and then worked backwards over time. Every period of her long career is richly rewarding. She excelled in a wide variety of material and in every muscial setting. There is a certain emotional reserve or detachment in her singing, but there is also a joy in her mastery, or so it seems to me.
Certain songs became special vehicles for her virtuosity. I think, for example, of “How High the Moon,” “Air Mail Special,” “Flying Home,” “C Jam Blues,” “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini),” “Summertime.” Last year we heard from many readers when I asked for an assessment of the relative merits of Ella, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday. Musician Joe Vass seemed to me to capture Ella perfectly:
She 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.
As I recall, Ella sought to become a professional dancer before she won the talent show at the Apollo Theater as a singer at at 17. She freely acknowledged that her idol early in her career was Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. The Boswell Sisters had a hit with the W.C. Handy song “St. Louis Blues” in 1930. When Fitzgerald performed the song, she brought something special to it. In the performance above from the 1979 Montreaux Jazz Festival she was backed by the Count Basie Band. You can hear a lot of America in that performance.
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