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

In New York last weekend you could not get into a cab without hearing the voice of Ella Fitzgerald on the radio. Record stores kept her discs playing continuously. It would be an exaggeration to say that the whole city was plunged into mourning, but there was a definite sense of shared loss. It was the same kind of bittersweet reaction that was in-spired by the deaths of Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire. They were all artists who dealt primarily in joy and their passing makes you personally sad, but when you think of them, even at such a moment, you smile.

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea