The sunny side of the street
JAZZ: She was the First Lady of Song - but, more than that, she brought happiness to millions. Robert Cushman pays tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, who died last week
Sunday 23 June 1996
The first Ella record that I heard last Saturday was "Organ Grinder's Swing", a piece of 1930s trivia that she had sung as a teenager and revived much later on a date with the Count Basie band. It is not the kind of standard - in either the general or the specialised music-biz sense - that the world most associates with Ella. But she sang it as if it were, with the same infectious note-and-rhythm-perfect enthusiasm that she brought to the Porter or Gershwin songbooks, though with more bravura freedom. Even though she stuck to lyrics and didn't scat it was an obviously "jazzy" performance; and Fitzgerald, even at her most staid, would be inconceivable without jazz. But the secret of her popularity lay outside it. She had, simply, the warmest, loveliest, most appealing voice in all of popular music; in fact, you can probably cross out the word "popular". (She seems, incidentally, to have been most classicists' favourite pop singer.) It was an approachable, unassuming beauty - you could not imagine her, as you could Sarah Vaughan, singing opera - but it stretched across a preternatural vocal range. She might have been born to sing lullabies - her version of "Over the Rainbow" is, though in a wholly different way, as affecting as Judy Garland's - but she could also encompass grand laments. The little girl and the great lady seem always to have co-existed. Her first and biggest hit came with a nursery rhyme ("A-Tisket A-Tasket"). She was 21 then, and had already been dubbed the First Lady of Song.
Fame seems to have been good for her on every level. When she started (to judge from Stuart Nicholson's admirable biography), musicians, though awed by her technical qualities, found her snippy. But insecurities that are forbidding in a newcomer are endearing in a celebrity, and she became generally adored. She had a tough early life, living virtually on the streets for a time; she inevitably faced racial prejudice; as a girl she felt gawky and as a woman overweight; she had two brief marriages and a series of shadowy affairs. But her prime relationship was with her audiences, and unlike some other love affairs between public and performer, it was creative rather than morbid.
Really the most important man in her life was Norman Granz, who from the 1950s on was her manager, her record producer, and possibly her Svengali. Granz, both a jazz-buff and a song-freak, discerned in Ella virtually two distinct vocalists. One was the harmonic virtuoso, who came out of swing and into bop and could improvise with un-bounded inventiveness, and whom he promoted round the globe in an endless and exhilarating series of concerts.
The other Ella - the Ella of the studios - was a ballad-singer who could make any song a pleasant experience, and so might make a great song a great experience. Granz put this hypothesis to the test by assembling generous quantities of the best songs of the best Broadway composers, putting Ella in front of them, and letting the tape roll. The results were the Songbook series: 19 LPs, recorded over nine years, that codified the American repertoire.
Though immensely popular, and never out of the catalogues, the Songbooks have come in for heavy criticism from two sets of purists: jazz (not enough freedom) and theatrical (too much freedom). Both sides impugn the singer's lack of "personal involvement". Actually the absence of heavy drama is often a blessing. On Cole Porter's "Love for Sale", Rodgers and Hart's "Spring is Here", Irving Berlin's "You Can Have Him", Harold Arlen's "The Man That Got Away", the voice is gentle, the manner matter-of-fact, and the effect extremely touching. As generations of radio listeners know, she sums up all of brave young courtship in "Manhattan", all the pain of temporary separation in "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye". As a vocal comedienne, she was much under-rated. She could use her high notes for wonderful effects of exasperation, and she could also project a wryly innocent self-mocking wickedness. In songs where every word tells, you can hear and relish all of them.
The Rolls-Royce among the Songbooks was the Gershwin set, 53 songs on five records, with deluxe arrangements by Nelson Riddle. Ella's swing and drive match George Gershwin's own, while Ira's twinkling, bemused lyrics are perfect for her. I imagine I speak for thousands when I say that listening to the Songbooks (not to mention singing along with them) was a major part of my education. In more recent years I may have taken them for granted, but I cannot imagine being without them. One may prefer other versions of individual songs, but Ella's extraordinary oeuvre is always there to fall back on.
Always reliable, never dull, always beloved; that voice and the shy but expansive personality behind it were world possessions. She went on singing, against some heavy physical odds, until within sight of the end, and if anything her work increased in depth. But Ella with faltering pitch was no longer quite Ella; she did pay a price for her earlier perfection. What is wonderful is that she never coasted on that perfection. Many of the best popular singers triumph over their limitations. Ella triumphed over her lack of them.
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