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Ella 100: Celebrating the Ella Fitzgerald Centenary

Introduction

On April 25, 1917, Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia. As we approach April 25, 2017, I will be celebrating the contributions of one of the greatest jazz singers in music history in commemoration of the centenary of her birth. Back in November 2015, when Notablog celebrated the Frank Sinatra Centenary, I took note of the fact that Sinatra himself referred to Ella as "The First Lady of Song." She brought to jazz many of the things that Ol' Blue Eyes emulated: impeccable diction, wonderful intonation, and an almost innate ability never to sing the same song the same way twice. Her improvisational gifts extended not only to her vocal phrasing but to her achievements in that unique art of jazz singing known as scatting.

Ella was raised on a steady diet of music from the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and the Boswell Sisters; in fact, it was largely in her embrace of Connee Boswell's style that she got her big breakthrough in 1934, when she competed in Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. An enthusiastic response from the typically critical audience and from the musicians themselves launched what would become one of the most extraordinary careers of any singer in American popular culture.

Through Benny Carter, a saxophonist in the house band at the Apollo that fateful night, Ella was introduced to many of Harlem's premier musicians; she eventually joined the Chick Webb band, with whom, in 1938, she scored a #1 hit, "A-Tisket A-Tasket," which sold one million copies--not bad for an ol' nursery rhyme. Over time, she recorded with bands led by the musicians who exemplified the changing sounds of the era, from the King of Swing, clarinetist extraordinarie Benny Goodman to Dizzy Gillespie, a trumpeter charging into a new era with the sounds of be bop. Ella's style, emergent in the Swing era, slowly incorporated the idioms of bop, which contributed to her mastery of the art of scat singing, a form of wordless, improvisational vocalizing that allowed the singer to use the voice as if it were another instrument in the band. She actually married the bassist in Dizzy's band, Ray Brown, with whom she adopted a son, Ray, Jr. It was through Ray's producer and manager, Norman Granz, that Ella began appearing in his Jazz at the Philharmonic series, eventually recording a series of "Songbook" albums in the 1950s and 1960s devoted to the works of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, and, later, in 1981, Antonio Carlos Jobim. This critically acclaimed work brought her international recognition as one of the foremost intepreters of the Great American Songbook.

Such acclaim manifested in fourteen Grammy Awards, a National Medal of the Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By the 1990s, Ella had recorded over 200 albums, giving her final concert at Carnegie Hall in 1991, the 26th time she had appeared at that iconic venue. She passed away at the age of 79 on June 15, 1996.

Ella's global impact makes it a difficult task to do a Centenary Tribute. Indeed, for years, I've been tributing this truly great singer with links to over seventy entries in "My Favorite Songs." I've cited Ella's renditions of the following songs, listed alphabetically--only, in this instance, I link not to my entries, but to YouTube presentations of her recordings, which means, you're a swinging click away from a touch of class. Prepare to be entertained: All of Me; All of You; All the Things You Are; All Right, Okay, You Win; Begin the Beguine; Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered; Bill Bailey (Won't You Please Come Home); Blue Moon; Blues in the Night; But Not for Me; Cheek to Cheek; Don't Be That Way; Don't Get Around Much Anymore; Early Autumn; Easy Living (with guitarist Joe Pass); (I Love You) for Sentimental Reasons; Give Me the Simple Life; Goody, Goody; Got to Get You Into My Life; The Glory of Love (with Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman; Goodnight My Love (with Benny Goodman); Have You Met Miss Jones?; Here's That Rainy Day; How Deep is the Ocean; How High the Moon; I Can't Give You Anything But Love; I Could Write a Book; I Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good); I'm Beginning to See the Light; I'm Confessin' (That I Love You); I'm Getting Sentimental Over You; In a Mellow Tone; It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing); It's All Right With Me; It's Only a Paper Moon; I've Got a Crush on You; Jersey Bounce; Jingle Bells; Joy to the World; The Lady is a Tramp (and check out her duet with The Chairman of the Board); Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!; Love for Sale; Mack the Knife; The Man that Got Away; My One and Only Love; My Romance; My Shining Hour; O Little Town of Bethlehem; Once I Loved (with guitarist Joe Pass); Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone; 'Round Midnight (live with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown); Runnin' Wild; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Solitude; Sophisticated Lady; Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most; Stairway to the Stars; Stella By Starlight; Sunshine of Your Love; Sweet Georgia Brown (live with the Duke Ellington Orchestra); Take the A Train; Tenderly (with Louis Armstrong); That Old Black Magic; That's Jazz (scatting with Mel Torme); These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You); This Can't Be Love; This Could Be the Start of Something Big; Too Close for Comfort; What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?; Whatever Lola Wants; With a Song in My Heart; and (If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini) [again: all YouTube links to enjoy!]

This list doesn't come close to the breadth of Ella's discography. Over the next week, leading up to April 25th, I'll feature just a few more gems from the Songbook of its First Lady.

And now the inevitable question: Can I give you a Top Ten list of Favorite Fitzgerald Recordings? Well, to paraphrase one of the classic lines from a Jerome Kern song I will highlight this week: I can't say... don't ask me! That's not a dismissal; it's just a reality. The woman recorded and performed so many songs in so many different arrangements throughout the years, that I would be hard pressed to pick ten specific recordings or performances. So let me just say: I love Ella. Start here and spend the next week with me, and you'll understand why.