May 29, 2024

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She was the Queen of Songs and Scats, one of the most memorable voices of the 20th century: Video

Ella Fitzgerald’s story is that of a black Cinderella, an American storybook career – from street kid to world star. 100 years ago Ella Fitzgerald was born.

It was a brave decision by bandleader Chick Webb to bring this girl into the band who had previously won only a few talent competitions in Harlem. Webb’s managers advised him against it, but the musicians in the band encouraged him. Some threatened to quit otherwise.

“Your voice is a gift of God,” her mother had always said to her. The mother died when Ella was 15. She no longer had a father. The orphan often skipped school, was put in a home, ran off, lived on the streets of Harlem and the Bronx. Listening to the radio, dancing, singing – that was her passion. In the years of economic depression, many dreamed of the stage star, the talent contests were overrun by contestants. One day, Ella actually managed to perform on one of these amateur evenings at the Apollo Theater. The practically homeless, poorly dressed, extremely shy, stout 17-year-old wanted to sing something out there. But then she left courage. So she just sang the first song on the radio that came to mind. The audience raged with enthusiasm.

“Sing Me a Swing Song and Let Me Dance” – that was the name of one of her early recordings with Chick Webb. It was the 1936 message: jazz was now called swing, a new fashion had broken out, the youth danced to that sound, it was the first mass pop culture. Back then, the young crowd danced in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Chick Webb’s orchestra was the house band, the little drummer the king of the Savoy – and his young singer Ella Fitzgerald became the princess, a symbol of the new youth cult. “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” was in the summer of 1938 for four months on number 1 on the sales charts, it was Ella’s first big hit.

But the young Ella Fitzgerald could not only sing a pretty melody, she became a singing musician with Chick Webb. She heard and understood the passage of the harmonies, she varied the themes of the songs at will, she was far more than just an insert in the program – Ella Fitzgerald became the star of the orchestra. They were called the “First Lady of Swing” and have long been top-ranked in the polls. And of course, she took over the direction of the orchestra, after Chick Webb, her fatherly friend, died in 1939 as a result of surgery.

“Flying Home” became a milestone in scat singing in 1945. Ella Fitzgerald had found a way to improvise like a jazz blower. Her role model was the singer Leo

Watson, but she trumped everything that had previously happened in scat singing. With her voice she moved like an instrumentalist free through the harmonies of a song, she took over techniques of the winds and quoted familiar melodies. “I steal everything I’ve ever heard,” she said. A special boost came from her bebop scat art – on a tour with Dizzy Gillespie she learned to scrape in the style of the Bop. “Dizzy always said to me, ‘Come on stage and make your solo, just like the boys.’ The bebop musicians have inspired me more than I can say.” Taking sides with modern jazz was by no means the norm successful swing musicians. In 1947, the singer even married the bassist Dizzy Gillespie, who was none other than Ray Brown. Wish that Ella would be presented at the successful concerts of “Jazz at the Philharmonic”. Norman Granz did him a favor and became himself Ella’s biggest fan. Granz became her counselor, her concert agent, her manager, her record producer.

Ella Fitzgerald’s Cole Porter Songbook from 1956 included three long-playing records with elaborate big band and string arrangements. It had never been heard of Cole Porter’s Broadway songs, and never before had a jazz singer made something similarly ambitious. For Ella Fitzgerald, the Cole Porter Songbook took the leap to a new level of her career – reaching audiences far beyond jazz. It was a dream start for Norman Granz’s new label Verve.

The great success of this album was followed by seven more such songbooks of great American composers. How Ella Fitzgerald designed the stage songs, with serenity and warmth, with understanding and jazz feeling and with this melodious, comforting gentleness – this is still touching and very great art. It seems to slip into each song and make it shine from within. “Whatever she does to my songs, they sound better to her,” said composer Richard Rodgers. And Ira Gershwin said, “I did not know how good our songs are until I heard Ella Fitzgerald.”

The songbooks made her a world star. For about ten years she was under contract with Verve, during which time she made more than 40 albums, or about four a year. In 1958 SATURDAY REVIEW said: “Ella Fitzgerald is the undisputed queen of the country.” At that time there was only one vocal voice in jazz that was similarly popular: it naturally included Louis Armstrong. You could hardly go wrong by bringing the two biggest jazz voices together into the studio, and that’s exactly what Norman Granz did – Ella and Louis recorded three studio albums together. And never did Ella Fitzgerald’s voice sound smoother and more girlish than in contrast with Satchmo’s harsh, scratchy vocals.

Current CDs:
Ella Fitzgerald & Tea Carson Trio, Live at Chautauqua Vol. II. Dot Time Records / H’Art
Ella Fitzgerald & London Symphony Orchestra, Someone To Watch Me, Verve / Universal

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