Ella Fitzgerald’s Century of Swing

Ella Fitzgerald in New York City, September 1947 (William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress)
An appreciation of the legendary jazz vocalist on her 100th birthday

One hundred years ago today, Temperance and William Fitzgerald had a baby girl in Newport News, Va. They named her Ella Jane. The proud parents could not know that their daughter would grow up to become a beloved artist, a principal architect of jazz, and, as is widely recognized, the finest female vocalist of the 20th century.

Appropriately enough, the jazz world has spent recent weeks marking the centennial of Ella Fitzgerald with concerts, broadcasts, exhibits, and other celebrations. As much as she is revered today, Ella distinguished herself from the very beginning.

At age 17, she entered an Amateur Night contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1934. She planned to impress the audience as a dancer. Luckily for everyone, the noted Edwards Sisters spun and twirled their way across the stage, just before Ella went on. Judging them a tough act to follow, and with her legs shaking with fear, Ella quickly switched gears. She gave her dancing shoes a rest and sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” one of her mother’s favorite pieces. Smart move! Ella wowed the crowd, which demanded three encores. She won the $25 first prize and, more important, captured the attention of audience member Benny Carter, a saxophonist, early champion, and lifelong collaborator.

The victory that Ella garnered the first time she sang publically was far from the last. She advanced to even greater glory:

‐Just three years after her Apollo Theater debut, Ella was named Down Beat magazine’s Top Female Vocalist for 1937.

‐The night in 1958 when the first Grammy Awards were handed out, Ella scored two statuettes. She won eleven more, as late in her career as 1990.

‐When Ella received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979, fellow vocalist Peggy Lee noted that when experts are asked, “Who is the greatest jazz singer of our time? . . . .The first reaction is always, ‘Well, you mean aside from Ella, right?’” Lee continued, “Well, that’s closer than most of us would like to admit. She has become, in her time, the standard by which all of the rest of us are measured, and that’s as it should be.”

‐President Reagan bestowed the National Medal of Arts on Ella in 1987.

“I’m just so thrilled today, sitting right next to the president,” she said, according to UPI. “This has been a big lift.”

President Reagan bestows the National Medal of Arts on Ella Fitzgerald, June 18, 1987. (Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

‐George H. W. Bush awarded Ella Fitzgerald the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. The 1992 proclamation read:

Ella Fitzgerald and her swing style of vocal jazz transcend the times. Her trademark scat captivates audiences, and as a cultural ambassador, her impressive vocal range stretches across oceans and political boundaries. Honored by the Kennedy Center for her lifetime achievements, inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame, and awarded the National Medal of Arts, it is fitting that the United States honors this “First Lady of Song”

‐By her website’s count, Ella produced some 200 records that sold a combined 40 million copies.

“Along with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald is the artist who shaped modern popular singing,” said Roberta Gambarini, a Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and guest artist with Celebrating Ella: The First Lady of Jazz, this week at Manhattan’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. “Her influence goes far beyond the musical language defined as jazz. Duke Ellington was well aware of this fact when he dubbed her ‘Beyond Category.’”

“In many ways, she provided the blueprint for all of the great American artists who came after her,” Gambarini continued. “In addition to jazz musicians, it is no surprise, that her genius has inspired a myriad of other artists such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, and many, many more.”

A huge part of what makes Ella so special is her own unmatched sound swinging to the instruments of incredibly skilled artists in ensembles both large and small.

Ella did not sing in a vacuum. As magical as her voice was, it was accompanied and augmented by players, bandleaders, and arrangers who became jazz legends in their own right. A huge part of what makes Ella so special is her own unmatched sound swinging to the instruments of incredibly skilled artists in ensembles both large and small. Her unforgettable efforts combine this creative energy in ways that brighten the darkest days and buoy the most  sunken spirits.

These are a few of my favorite things that Ella recorded:

‐“St. Louis Blues” from Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert (1988). This long-unreleased 1958 performance finds Ella at the Teatro Sistina delivering a stunning rendition of a W. C. Handy classic. As if she were piloting a jumbo jet, Ella eases gently from the airport gate: “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” Her cadence picks up as she taxis down the runway. “Got the St. Louis blues, blue as I can be.” Soon, she launches into a burst of scat singing that speeds the entire vehicle into the heavens. The effect cannot be transcribed.

‐“Mack the Knife” from Ella in Berlin (1960). When Ella appeared at West Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle, Bobby Darin’s version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife” was a worldwide hit. As Ella prepared to unveil that tune, she told the audience, “We hope we can remember all the words.” Ella begins with great confidence. “Ahhhh . . . Sunday. Sunday morning,” she ad libs before long, and then returns to the proper lyrics. A few moments later: “Oh, what’s the next chorus to this song now? This is the one now, I don’t know.”

Ella’s quartet plays along elegantly, as if everything were perfectly normal. Ella, the consummate professional, keeps calm and carries on. She invents her owns words that rhyme and fit the song’s rhythm. “Something about cash,” she improvises. What could have been a musical bus crash wound up as a pure delight. Amazingly enough, this exquisitely rescued, error-driven track won Ella the Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance.

‐“Happy Blues” from Ella in London (1974). While most blues songs chronicle misery and despair, albeit often with a darkly comic touch, there is not a drop of misfortune in this number. Instead, Ella sings joyfully as her band plays bouncy, finger-popping riffs, to the enchantment of a crowd that claps along at Ronnie Scott’s nightclub in London. “Snappy, Happy. Happy snappy. That’s me!”

‐“Midnight Sun” from For the Love of Ella (1990). Ella’s voice somehow seems three-dimensional on this Sonny Burke/Lionel Hampton/Johnny Mercer ballad. Assisted on this 1964 session by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra and Frank Flynn’s vibraphone, Ella makes these lovely lyrics downright haunting.

Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice

Warmer than the summer night.

The clouds were like an alabaster palace

Rising to a snowy height.

Each star its own Aurora Borealis

Suddenly you held me tight

I could see the midnight sun.

‐“Don’t Mean a Thing” from Ella & Duke at The Côte d’Azur (1997)

Ella blends her enormous talents with those of Duke Ellington, one of jazz’s two dads, as documentarian Ken Burns proved him to be in his landmark PBS series Ken Burns Jazz. As Ellington’s orchestra swings away, Ella scats up a storm, to the elation of the audience in Juan-Les-Pins, France, in 1966.

‐“They All Laughed” from Ella and Louis Again (1957). Ella joins forces with jazz’s other dad, Louis Armstrong. Ella and Louis sound like old friends reminiscing. Their shared warmth pours right through their microphones into your mind. This song’s very clever lyrics recall how critics often dismiss the early works of the mighty, who eventually surprise the naysayers with their success. (“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round/They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.”) Such tales, this tune teaches, should encourage lovers who trigger initial doubts in the eyes of others.

‐“The Lady is a Tramp” from Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim (1967). The premiere male and female vocalists of the 20th Century appear together on this NBC-TV special and perform at the height of their powers. They are high class, completely relaxed, and totally at ease with each other. Their mutual respect and affection are deeply touching. With the assistance, once again, of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, Frank and Ella breeze through this charming song with little more apparent effort than if they were inhaling and exhaling on beach towels.

Norman Granz, Ella’s manager, united her with the finest arrangers and bandleaders of the 1950s and early ’60s. Together, they created entire albums for Verve Records that each focused solely on a noted songwriter (or songwriting duo) whose music and lyrics contributed to The Great American Songbook. Ella’s renditions of these selections became definitive, once they enjoyed her touch. Ira Gershwin once remarked, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”

In addition to Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Song Book, she released similar recordings dedicated to the compositions of Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, and Rodgers and Hart.

In addition to her stellar voice, Ella’s diction was superb. If she merely were a public speaker, she would have been called highly articulate. The result: These songwriters’ lyrics are presented with total clarity and perfect enunciation. This was true from the first album in this series, 1956’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, which entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000. In Ella’s hands, and with charts by conductor Buddy Bregman, such spectacular Porter lyrics as these — from “Always True to You in My Fashion” — are utterly irresistible:

If a custom-tailored vet

Asks me out for something wet

When the vet begins to pet, I cry, “Hooray!”

But I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion

Yes, I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my way . . .

From Ohio, Mister Thorne

Calls me up from night ’til morn

Mister Thorne once cornered corn, and that ain’t hay

But I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion

Yes, I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my way

From Milwaukee, Mister Fritz

Often dines me at the Ritz

Mister Fritz invented Schlitz, and Schlitz must  pay

But I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion

Yes, I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my way

Mister Harris, plutocrat

Wants to give my cheek a pat

If the Harris pat means a Paris hat, pay, pay!

But I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion

Yes, I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my way

From “I Am in Love,” Ella’s vocal chords also work wonders with these pearls from Porter’s pen:

I am dejected. I am depressed.

Yet resurrected and sailing the crest.

Why this elation, mixed with deflation?

What explanation? I am in love.

Such conflicting questions rise

around in my brain: Should I order cyanide

or order champagne?

Oh, what is this sudden jolt?

I feel like a frightened colt,

just hit by a thunderbolt. I am in love.

There is so much more to say about Ella Fitzgerald. For my part, I only will add that I twice was fortunate enough to see her live — once at Radio City Music Hall and once at the Hollywood Bowl. At about age 73, she was visibly frail in the early 1990s. But even that late in her life, she had the voice of that teenage girl who stepped off the stage of the Apollo Theater and transformed herself into one of the most generous gifts that America has offered the world.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a contributor to National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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