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the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

Today would have been Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday. She was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. At least that’s would we now believe to be true. Ella Fitzgerald left much about her earliest years shrouded in mystery. She was fanatically guarded about her history and her privacy. For example, her birth date was given as 1918 for many years. At one point, her manager, mentor, some say Svengali, Norman Granz, hinted that she was actually born in 1920 or 1921. Whatever the case, historians now seemed locked in on 1917 and that’s fine with me because the sooner we can celebrate Ella, the better. In fact, I’m more than willing to celebrate Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th next year as well. And 2020 and 2021 are fine with me too. As far as I’m concerned, her talent was so big, so unique, and so universal that her legacy should be in a constant state of celebration.

At the start of this month, I gave a presentation on Fitzgerald and spent a couple of weeks reading and researching the great lady. I’ve played Fitzgerald’s music on the radio for over 17 years but as I started to research her, I realized that I knew very little about her. The more I searched, the more I realized that it was, in fact, her goal to have you know little about her. Her father either deserted she and her mother when she was a toddler or he died. They moved to Yonkers to live with her aunt and at some point her mother remarried. Her stepfather may or may not have abused her. Her mother had another daughter, Frances, and Ella Fitzgerald would help take care of her half-sister for the rest of her life. She dropped out of school and ended up in either an orphanage or a home for delinquent girls or both. She danced on street corners to earn money. She entered an amateur contest at either the Harlem Opera House or the Apollo Theater with the intention of dancing. Once on stage she froze. Amid the jeers from the crowd, the MC told her “You better do something,” and she began to sing a song she remembered from her childhood. That song was either “Judy” or “The Object of My Affection.” The one fact that does remain consistent through the years is that Fitzgerald always credited Connee Boswell, or as Fitzgerald would say in interviews, “Miss Connee Boswell,” as her first important influence in terms of singing.

The story encompasses more permutations before we get to the other solid fact that Chick Webb, a prominent African American big band leader, gave her the opportunity to sing professionally as a band singer. He supposedly adopted her because she was under 18 and needed the permission of a parent or legal guardian to work. Unfortunately, Webb was a sickly young man and died at the tender age of 29. Fitzgerald took over the band for two or three years before the unit folded due to all the musicians who were being drafted into the service for WWII.

Fitzgerald sang solo for a few years trying to duplicate the success she’d attained in 1938 with her jazz novelty recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” These were the days of recordings like “My Wubba Dolly,” “Sing Song Swing,” and “Hello Ma! I Done It Again.” She did find some success with a series of recordings she did with the Ink Spots in 1944 and 1945 but the Big Band Era was winding to a close. In the late 1940s she began to find her jazz voice through her friendship and jam sessions with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, one of the pioneers of the Be Bop style of jazz. This is when Fitzgerald really begins to experiment and develop her abilities with scat singing. It may have been Gillespie who encouraged her to use her voice as a jazz instrument but it was Louis “Pops” Armstrong who had initially made scat singing a viable means of vocal interpretation back in the 1920s and 1930s. Fitzgerald would often credit Armstrong for his influence as well.

By the early 1950s there was only one piece of the puzzle still missing in Fitzgerald’s career. That final piece came along in the person of Norman Granz. A jazz fan and impresario, Granz initiated the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and recordings. Initially reluctant to use Fitzgerald in the concerts (he felt they should be limited to instrumental jazz) he was cajoled into letting her sit in and the rest, as they say, is history. When Fitzgerald’s record contract with Decca expired, she signed with Granz’s Verve label. Granz also became her personal manager. He guided her career for the remaining 40 years of her life.

Many people questioned Granz’s control over Fitzgerald as he made access to Miss Fitzgerald extremely difficult. The more you learn about Ella Fitzgerald it’s not difficult to think that perhaps she encouraged that isolation. She was an intensely private person. The more you delve into her life, the more you realize that, quite literally, music was her life.

Pianist Jimmy Rowles, who accompanied Fitzgerald for many years, once said “When she walks down the street, she trails notes behind her . . .”

One of her greatest fans, and disciples, was Mel Torme, a tremendous jazz singer in his own right. In his 1994 book, My Singing Teachers, Torme wrote of Fitzgerald, “She has the purest tone in music. In either a ballad or an up-tune mode, her voice is crystal clear. Add to that her great sense of timing, her undisputed feeling for swing, her effervescent demeanor on the concert stage, bubbling with rhythm, and it is easy to understand why Ella, above all other lady singers, stands alone, at the head of the pack.”

Norman Granz, her alter-ego, described her talent in a 1996 interview with Jazziz magazine saying, “Ella respects melody. So that instead of showing off, which she can do harmonically, which is the third part of all music, Ella stressed the melody, so you knew what she was doing. And she swung. Well, if you have those elements, that takes in an awful lot of people. You don’t have to stretch out and show how harmonically hip you are and reinterpret a song so that, for many people, they don’t even know what you’re doing. Now that’s not to say that she’s deliberately trying to be more commercial, it’s just something that she does innately.”

That quote illuminates a crucial issue of the Fitzgerald legacy. There were some who criticized Fitzgerald’s songbook recordings that she began in the mid-1950s and carried through the 1960s saying that she had indeed sold out her jazz talents to produce more commercial recordings. Some blamed Norman Granz and I’m sure some blamed Fitzgerald. That said, I embrace Granz’s quote in Jazziz because there are and were many singers who I feel sacrifice the integrity of the song to show off their vocal talents through a variety of vocal tricks. This is a sore subject for me because many of the jazz greats abandoned melody in the course of their careers to show how “hip” they were with excursions into avant-garde flights of fancy. In many cases, these experiments in alternative modes of jazz were no doubt complex and difficult to master. The problem was they were also supremely un-musical.

If you’re sing or playing popular music, the fans quite naturally want to hear their favorite songs in every show. In the early days of jazz and swing the musicians got bored having to play the same tunes over and over again in the same way, night after night. It’s understandable. That’s why after the clubs had closed for the night, the musicians would stick around and play for themselves. “The jam session” evolved as an exercise for musicians to stretch out and experiment with whatever new sounds, rhythms, and harmonies they wanted to explore. However, my belief is that a musician is both an artist and an entertainer. In your role as an entertainer, it is your duty to entertain. There are cases where the musicians or vocalists abandoned the more simple, or commercial if you will, to go in a whole other direction and that is their right as an artist. However, do not criticize someone who enjoys what they’re doing for not expanding their horizons in other directions. The reality is that the reason I have always loved Ella Fitzgerald so much is that, as Norman Granz intimated, she ALWAYS remained true to the melody. No matter what flights of fancy she took with her singing and scatting, there was always a melodic center to her performance.

Time magazine wrote in 1964, “But play as she will with the originals, she respects their integrity, if they have any. Her imitators shred songs; she explodes and reassembles them.” Her ability to respect the melody and reassemble is what set Ella Fitzgerald apart from all other jazz singers.

She was a band singer, a ballad singer, a jazz singer, a gospel singer, even on occasion, a country western singer. Her voice was an unparalleled instrument. Her love and devotion to all music is what inspires the love and devotion of her fans. Ella Fitzgerald and the musical legacy she left behind will remain relevant and revered for many hundreds of years to come.

***Don’t forget to tune into Jazz 90.1 FM Radio in Rochester, New York, all day this coming Friday, April 28, 2017, as we celebrate the legacy of the First Lady of Song with 24 hours of music from Ella and Friends. It starts at 12:00 am Friday morning and runs throughout the day on Friday until 12:00 am Saturday. You can listen online via the station’s web stream at 




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