Today we celebrate the centennial anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song. 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 musical setting. There is an emotional reserve or detachment in her singing, but there is also joy and an irrepressible sense of fun in her approach. In my eyes she was one of the twentieth century’s great artists, deep in the American grain. Ted Gioia anticipated the occasion and paid tribute to her earlier this month in the Weekly Standard article “Ella by starlight.”
The songs that served as vehicles for Ella’s 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 on “Basin Street Blues.”
Fitzgerald became a professional singer at an early age, but the route was surprisingly indirect. She 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. Biographer Stuart Nicholson reports: “To Ella’s delight and surprise, she brought down the house.”
Fitzgerald won the talent show, moving on to her distinguished career. In a personal life marred by misfortune — she 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 adventures in 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. (I think Gioia concurs.)
Granz loved good music and hated racial prejudice, in roughly equal measure. He put his money where his mouth was too, generally refusing to book his artists in racially segregated venues or otherwise accommodate Jim Crow. This extremely interesting figure has finally received the full-scale biographical treatment that he deserves in his own right (and we also have Nat Hentoff’s illuminating BBC radio series on him). Fitzgerald must have trusted Granz deeply. Her relationship with him was a permanent fixture in her life, perhaps the only one.
Granz first brought Fitzgerald aboard his epochal Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in the 1940’s, becoming her manager in 1953. Granz was responsible for her career from the mid-’50’s on, the period during which she became a world-renowned artist. He produced the “songbook” series of albums on Verve that brought Fitzgerald the respectful attention of a wide audience.
Granz also produced Fitzgerald’s concerts around the world. She reveled in the adulation of enthusiastic European audiences and did some of her best work before them. Take a listen, for example, to Ella in Rome (1958), Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella Live in Berlin (1960), or Ella in Hamburg (1965).
Granz founded Verve in part to record Fitzgerald when her contract with Decca expired, and then founded Pablo Records to resume recording her after he sold Verve. Scott Yanow’s Allmusic profile 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.
In the video above, Granz introduces the finale of his 1958 JATP show including Ella at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. The lineup features the Oscar Peterson trio with Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar. Violinist Stuff Smith, Peterson, Ellis, and trumpet player Roy Eldridge take the solos on Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” There was no musical setting in which Ella didn’t shine, but this historic footage places Ella in a great one.
In the video below, Ella sings W.C. Handy’s classic “St. Louis Blues” backed by Count Basie and his big band at Montreux in 1979. In this performance you can hear America singing: “I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down.” Ella is past her prime, as is the Basie band, but (Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme excepted) she’s still about a million miles beyond whoever was second best that year.
As Ella leaves the stage, the band vamps on “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” the song Ella had worked up into her first hit when she recorded it with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1938. It’s an exit that brings her magnificent career full circle.
NOTE: I have posted this tribute since 2007 on the anniversary of Ella’s birth whenever I remember the day. YouTube now hosts a video with the all-star finale of the 1972 concert at the Santa Monica Civic described by Scott Yanow in the quote above. Here it is.
UPDATE (2017): When I was a graduate student in English Literature, I learned that I needed to attend to Ella when I saw the prominent critic William Wimsatt ask for Ella’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook at the old Cutler’s Record Shop in New Haven. Below is Ella’s recording of “Miss Otis Regrets” from the Porter Songbook.
I think I first went crazy for Ella listening to her work with Joe Pass. Below is her version of “You Go To My Head” from her initial collaboration with him on Pablo. It represents a memorable case of expressive form.