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How high the moon?

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. She was a remarkable artist. Each period of her long career is rewarding, though she deepened her art as she got older. She excelled in a wide variety of material and in every muscial setting. There is an emotional reserve or detachment in her singing, but there is also joy and an irrespressible sense of fun in her approach.

The songs that served as vehicles for her virtuosity invariably displayed her sense of fun. Listen, for example, to “How High the Moon,” “Air Mail Special,” “Flying Home,” “C Jam Blues,” or “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini).” The fun is vividly on display in her startling impersonation of Louis Armstrong in “Basin Street Blues.” She could also bring out the beauty in a ballad, as she did, for example, in “Stormy Weather” with Joe Pass.

Two years ago we heard from many readers when trying to weigh the relative merits of Ella, Sarah Vaughan 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.

Ella became a professional singer at an early age, but the route was surprisingly indirect. Ella originally turned up at amateur night at the Apollo Theater on a bet at age 17 to perform as a dancer. She reassessed her prospects when she took a look at the competition and decided to sing instead. She performed “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection” in the style of her idol Connee Boswell (of the Boswell Sisters).

Ella won the talent show, moving on to become one of the great artists of the twentieth century. In a personal life marred by misfortune — Ella became an orphan as a teenager, ended up in reform school, and lived without a home the year before she appeared at the Apollo — her winning the talent contest as a singer was not her only good luck. Her work with Dizzie Gillespie’s band in the 1940′s added the discoveries of bebop to her repertoire. But her long association with producer/manager Norman Granz must be credited as the best thing that ever happened to her. Granz was responsible for her career from the mid-’50′s on, the period during which she became a world-renowned artist.

Granz loved good music and hated racial prejudice, perhaps in equal measure. He first brought Ella aboard his epochal Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in the 1940′s. He became her manager in 1953. He produced the “songbook” series of albums on Verve that brought Ella the respectful attention of a wide audience. He produced Ella’s concerts around the world; she reveled in the adoration of enthusiastic European audiences and did some of her best work before them.

Granz founded Verve in part to record Ella when her contract with Decca expired, and then founded Pablo Records to resume recording her after he sold Verve. Scott Yanow’s Allmusic profile of Ella observes:

Fitzgerald’s later years were saved by Norman Granz’s decision to form…Pablo [in 1973]. Starting with a Santa Monica Civic concert in 1972 that is climaxed by Fitzgerald’s incredible version of “C Jam Blues” (in which she trades off with and “battles” five classic jazzmen), Fitzgerald was showcased in jazz settings throughout the 1970s with the likes of Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Joe Pass, among others.

Ella must have trusted Granz deeply. Her relationship with him was one permanent fixture in her life.

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 video above from the 1979 Montreaux Jazz Festival she was backed by the Count Basie Band. You can hear America singing in that performance.

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