June 15, 2006

Lady [still] be good

There are "Sarah" people, "Billie" people, and "Ella" people. You can mark me down as a committed Ella person.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, known as the First Lady of Song, and one of the great performers of the so-called "Great American Songbook," the repetoire of the period from 1930-50 that is widely considered the zenith of popular music composition.

A teenage runaway, Fitzgerald was singing whenever she could to make ends meet when she was discovered by bandleader Chick Webb in 1935. Her first hit was a recording of the nursery rhyme "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" in 1938. Following Webb's death in 1939, she took over as bandleader of his orchestra, pursuing a solo career a few years later. When the Verve jazz label was founded by Norman Granz in 1956, Ella was his flagship artist. Her most notable work was the eight "Songbook" albums recorded from the mid-50s to mid-60s, each showcasing the music of a notable American composer, including George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter.

Fitzgerald died of complications arising from diabetes on June 15, 1996, at the age of 79.

I can't remember precisely when it was that I started enjoying Ella Fitzgerald's music. It must have been during my first year of university or even later in my high-school career. CBC used to run a program at midnight on weekdays called Night Camp that featured old-time radio and classic jazz, and I suspect that I heard a number or two there while working through my linear algebra homework at Waterloo. But I do know that I first sat down and properly listened to her after borrowing a compilation cassette from a jazz-aficionado floormate in my first year, and I never looked back. The things that attracted me to her singing are the things she is most notable for: the pure, youthful quality of her voice, that incredible three-octave range, and her virtuosity at improvisation.

In honour of the occasion, I had intended to post brief reviews of some of my favourite Ella Fitzgerald recordings. Time got away from me, however, so allow me simply to posts a few comments about a few personal favourite albums.

  • While as a promotional album it's no classic, it's only fair to note the compilation that got the ball rolling for me: Ella Fitzgerald Live, part of Sony's "Walkman Jazz" (and later "Compact Jazz" with a few additional tracks) series. This album is notable for blistering performances of "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Take the 'A' Train," as well as sensitive performances of the Gershwin classics "Summertime" and "The Man I Love."
  • Only someone like Ella could go to Berlin, forget the lyrics of a beloved German classic song, bring the house down, and win a Grammy for it. That is exactly what happens on Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife. This is my favourite Fitzgerald record, including what is possibly the only good rendition of "Misty" in history, a wonderful "The Lady is a Tramp," and one of the best closings in music history: the aforementioned "Mack the Knife" and a resounding "How High the Moon." This album is a must-have for any beginning jazz collection.
  • Ella and Louis was the first of three studio collaborations between Fitzgerald and trumpeter/singer Louis Armstrong, and in my opinion the best of the three. Ella's crystal-clear tones are a perfect foil for Satchmo's gravelly voice and brash trumpet. Oh, and that's Oscar Peterson and his trio, along with legendary drummer Louis Bellson, backing them up. Ella and Louis must have had a blast recording these numbers together, and it shows in the lively play between them. Standout tracks are the opener, "Why Can't We Be Friends," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and "Cheek to Cheek." Invite your girlfriend over, curl up in front of the fire, and listen to this together. Along with Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms and a few other discs, this is one I always use to test out new stereo equipment, since I'm so familiar with its sound.
  • Finally, let me put in a quick plug for one of my favourite Christmas albums: Ella Wishes You a Swingin' Christmas. The only low point is her rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and that is only because she plays it as an upbeat tune, instead of the melancholy song it actually is. (Diana Krall gets this right on her recent Christmas album; but then again, everything she does is melancholy . . .)

If I were a more socially conscious blogger, I might have something to say about her role in the relations between the races, as the first black performer at the fabled Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood; or, as one obituary noted ironically, as a black woman singing the songs of Jewish immigrants to a predominantly white Christian audience. Well, I'm not that kind of blogger: I'm one of those white Christians who has derived an awful lot of joy over the last 15 years listening to the pure beauty of an Ella Fitzgerald recording. Ten years later, the world is still noticeably uglier by her departure.