She Could Swing
When confronted with the recordings and performances of Ella Fitzgerald, several questions come to mind. Could anyone outswing her? Was anyone a more exciting and inventive scat-singer? Did anyone else have a friendlier voice? And who else has sung definitive versions of over 100 standards, as opposed to a dozen? One could come up with a few candidates for one or two of these questions, but it would be difficult to come up with very many singers (other than perhaps Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan) who can compete with Ella in all four areas.
Do yourself a favor and go out of your way to hear Ella’s version of “C Jam Blues” from June 2, 1972, recorded for the Pablo label at the Santa Monica Civic. The concert was originally supposed to feature the singer and Count Basie’s orchestra, but producer Norman Granz surprised everyone by also inviting an all-star group of Jazz At The Philharmonic musicians including Oscar Peterson, Roy Eldridge, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Stan Getz and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. To climax the exciting night, for an encore everyone joined in on “C Jam Blues.” Ella scatted wildly, the horn players (plus trombonist Al Grey) took short solos, and Ella traded off individually with each of the five horn players. In all of the cases, something very spontaneous and humorous occurred. Ella imitated Grey’s trombone; she and Edison performed a complicated phrase in perfect harmony (to the surprise of both); she and Getz completed each other’s phrases, and she won a battle with Lockjaw. When the always-competitive Eldridge hit a screaming high note, Ella ended their confrontation by singing perfectly in rhythm “You ain’t going to ruin my voice tonight with that note!”
Ella Fitzgerald had come a long way from her very humble beginnings. She was born in Newport News, Virginia on Apr. 25, 1917. Her early life, which she rarely ever spoke about, was in ways as dark as Billie Holiday’s. She grew up very poor and was homeless for a year as a teenager. To say that she was unsure about her future is an understatement. However, Ella handled her life in a much different fashion than Lady Day. While Holiday was sometimes practically autobiographical in her interpretations of lyrics (particularly by the 1950s), Ella lost herself in her music and hid her private life from the public. She loved singing so much that that was almost enough to fill up her life.
Early on Ella hoped to become a dancer, and in 1934, she signed up for the Apollo Theatre’s amateur contest as a dancer. But at the last minute due to stage fright, she spontaneously decided to switch to singing, performing “Judy” in the style of her early idol, Connie Boswell, and winning the contest. It led to her singing briefly with Tiny Bradshaw’s orchestra and getting an audition with Fletcher Henderson. However, Henderson was put off by her appearances (which included wearing worn out clothes due to her poverty) and passed on her. Benny Carter had been in the audience at the Apollo and told Chick Webb that he should sign her up. Webb was also not impressed by her appearance, but gave her a chance one night. When Ella performed, the audience became quite enthusiastic about her spirited singing, and Webb hired her. Within a year, she was the band’s main attraction.
Ella Fitzgerald made her recording debut with Chick Webb on June 12, 1935 as an 18-year old with “I’ll Chase The Blues Away.” The majority of Webb’s recordings during the next four years featured her vocal. From the start, her joyful singing was infectious and very appealing. She added variety and commercial appeal to Webb’s band, mostly performing both juvenile novelties and ballads. On numbers such as “When Dreams Come True” and “I Want To Be Happy,” Ella showed that she already had the ability to swing joyfully, although her scat-singing would not develop for a few more years.. “You’ve Got To Swing It” (later renamed “Mr. Paganini”) became a permanent part of her repertoire in 1936, a year in which she also guested on record dates with Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman’s orchestra. Ella led her first record sessions the following year, using a small group taken from the Webb band. With her recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” in 1938, Fitzgerald had her first giant hit, and it would always be her trademark song. Her vocal version of “Undecided” from 1939 would also be very popular.
Chick Webb, who had shaky health throughout his life, died at the age of 30 in June 16, 1939. Immediately it was decided to keep his band working with Ella as the leader, even though others (at first Teddy McRae) would actually be the musical director. Within 13 days of Webb’s passing, she was recording as the leader of her “Famous Orchestra.” Ella was technically the first female to lead her own otherwise all-male orchestra during the Swing Era. This venture lasted for two years before she officially launched her solo career.
Although it was not a sure thing at the start that Ella Fitzgerald would have a successful career, she had a solid contract with the Decca label, her popularity was gradually growing, and, most importantly, she worked hard at developing her singing. The juvenile novelties were dropped in favor of swing standards, ballads and blues. Her voice grew in its beauty and perfection; did she ever sing a note out of tune? In 1946, when singers began to take over the pop charts from swing bands, Ella showed that she could expertly straddle the two worlds of jazz and pop.
She had her first recorded duets with Louis Armstrong (“You Won’t Be Satisfied” and “The Frim Fram Sauce”) and impressed Norman Granz so much with her performances that he began using her on his Jazz At The Philharmonic tours. Granz eventually became her manager. Inspired by bebop and Dizzy Gillespie (she toured with his big band in 1947), she became a masterful scat singer. Her recordings of “Lady Be Good,” “How High The Moon,” and “Flying Home” were very popular in the jazz world, but she also showed that she could lightly swing a standard in a way that appealed to a much wider audience.
A household name by 1944, Ella never had an off-period. In contrast, her private life was unremarkable and sometimes lonely. She was married to Ray Brown during 1948-52 (they would remain friends in later years), and she had a brief second marriage, but in general her life was her music. She traveled, performed and recorded constantly, somehow never sounding tired or erratic.
It was always difficult for critics to find anything to criticize in Ella’s singing. Her one fault was considered her lack of emotional depth because her singing was usually full of joy. But even that criticism was a bit unfair for she could sing a lowdown ballad or blues on the level of most, really digging into the words. Her first songbook, a set of Gershwin songs performed as duets with pianist Ellis Larkins in 1950 and 1954, found her mostly sticking to the words and melodies in interpretations that were quietly emotional.
During the 1950s and for much of the next decade, Ella was at the peak of her powers. She started appearing in movies including, most notably, 1955’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (which included a memorable version of “Hard Hearted Hannah”) and as a drug addict-singer in Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960). Her recordings for Decca, although they included a few throwaways that were attempts at hits, were generally quite good and underrated. She continued touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic and started appearing as a regular guest on television. However, Norman Granz had more ambitious plans for her.
In 1955, Granz persuaded her not to renew her contract with Decca and to instead become a major part of the new label that he had formed with her in mind, Verve. In addition to combo dates and other projects (including three memorable duet albums with Louis Armstrong), Granz featured Ella on lengthy songbook sets that focused on the work of major songwriters. During 1956-62 Ella recorded albums of the songs of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and lyricist Johnny Mercer. With the exception of the Ellington project (which matched her with Duke’s big band and an all-star group that included Ben Webster and Stuff Smith), these were orchestral dates on which Ella sang fairly straight, sticking to the lyrics while giving the music a gentle swing. When singers in later years wanted to know how a certain song went, they were safe in emulating and studying Ella’s songbook recordings.
A highlight of this period was her 1960 Berlin concert (available as Ella in Berlin). While it was being recorded, she forgot the words to “Mack The Knife.” Instead of just scatting, she made up new lyrics on the spot that have to be heard to be believed. Included are stanzas about her forgetting the words and how she was making a wreck of the song. Another album that needs to be heard is Ella In Hollywood, one of her most jazz-oriented records. On the live set, Ella takes her longest-ever recorded vocal on “Take The ‘A’ Train,” scatting on all but a few choruses for nine very inventive and exciting minutes. If she had only been documented on that one performance, it would have been sufficient evidence that she was one of the all-time greats.
The 1960s and ‘70s were a constant whirlwind of activity. Norman Granz sold Verve in late-1960, but Ella remained with the label through 1966. While popular music continued to advance and change, Ella tried to stay current by including some pop songs such as the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” (which she swung), “Sunshine Of Your Love” and even “Hey Jude”, but those were unnecessary. Her fans still wanted her to perform classic material, and that remained the bulk of her repertoire. Her Capitol recordings of 1967-68 were generally forgettable but listenable as were her Reprise albums of 1969-70, but Norman Granz would again save the day.
In 1972, Granz formed the Pablo label which became Ella’s musical home for the remainder of her career. She had opportunities to record with everyone from Count Basie, all-star bands and Oscar Peterson to duets with guitarist Joe Pass. At age 55 in 1972, Ella’s voice and health would fade gradually during the next 15 years. Her range shrunk in the 1980s, and her voice was not as steady as it had been, but she never lost her superb timing and ability to swing. Her last recording, 1989’s All That Jazz, is a bit weak, but still worth hearing.
Ella Fitzgerald retired altogether in the early 1990s and passed away on June 15, 1996 at the age of 79. In the 21 years since, no singer has taken her place or reached her level, and one doubts that anyone ever will. She remains The First Lady Of Song on the 100th anniversary of her birth. There is only one Ella.
The author of The Jazz Singers and a lifelong Ella Fitzgerald fan, Scott Yanow (scottyanow.com) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay was originally published in the UK in The Jazz Rag earlier this year. It is reprinted here by permission of the author, who also writes Nights at the Turntable, a column of CD reviews, for this paper.
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