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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?