Obituary : Ella Fitzgerald

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The Independent Online
"Man, woman and child," said Bing Crosby, "Ella Fitzgerald is the greatest."

At the conclusion of a recital in Washington, the distinguished accompanist Gerald Moore and the German Lieder and opera singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau left the hall hurriedly and rushed to the airport to catch a plane to New York. They made their way to Carnegie Hall where Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington were about to give a concert. "Ella and the Duke together!" enthused Fischer-Dieskau to Moore, "One just doesn't know when there might be a chance to hear that again!"

"I never knew how good our songs were," said Ira Gershwin said, "until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them." No exaggeration here, and indeed Ella popped out definitive versions of songs as easily as a baker making bread. She could take songs that were no good and give them worth. She invariably hit the jazz musician's ultimate target - to leave a song improved from the composer's original version.

Ella Fitzgerald was a singer who moved easily and seamlessly between popular music and jazz. She must rank with Bing Crosby in terms of her influence upon other singers. She had an enormous range, perfect pitch and unusually clear diction, and there was little in the way of histrionics in her performances. Ballads were treated with poise and sensitivity but her voice had too much of a happy sound to deliver much in the way of tragedy and grief. Her effervescent scat singing showed her phrasing like a trumpet or a saxophone would and, using this style, she traded choruses in jam sessions with Stan Getz, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young and all of the stars in Norman Granz's Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP) unit with which she worked for so many years.

The milestones in her career were many, but among her special gifts to us were the Song Book albums, wherein, thanks to Granz, she was able to record most of the finest songs in American popular music with backing provided by the best arrangers and orchestras available. And another treasure, quite different, was the series of jam-session-like albums she made in tandem with Louis Armstrong in 1956 and 1957. Again these were for Granz's Verve label, and this time he included Oscar Peterson and Buddy Rich amongst her accompanists.

The Song Books, recorded in the Fifties and Sixties, were usually double albums, each being devoted to the music of one composer. The finest of them was that made up from the music of Harold Arlen whose songs suited Ella best. Others used the songs of George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington. Among the nine most successful "singles" of Ella's career were two tracks from the Song Books, "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and "Manhattan". Attempts to continue the series in later years were undistinguished in comparison with the originals.

Ella was a shy person who never adjusted to the fame and acclaim she was showered with for so many years. Nor could she reconcile the idea that she had done anything to earn her plaudits. She hated to be interviewed and was terrified at the thought of controversy. She was happiest sitting at home watching soaps on the television. And yet I cannot forget the image of her in a communal JATP dressing-room trying to read a book by Sartre whilst amongst other disruptions I was trying to interview Stan Getz; Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge were shouting and laughing together; Coleman Hawkins was warming up on his tenor sax, and Getz was calling for a bottle opener.

She never knew her father, nor the town of Newport News where she was born in 1917 (not 1918 as was later claimed), but had a happy childhood in Yonkers, New York, where she was raised by her mother and stepfather. An early fascination with show-business led her to take up dancing, but on her first entry to a talent concert at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in 1934 she decided to sing. She sang "Judy" well enough to win and her performance was so good that the saxophone player Benny Carter and the entrepreneur John Hammond who were in the audience took her to see the bandleader Fletcher Henderson.

"I guess he wasn't too impressed," Ella said. "He said `Don't call me, I'll call you!' "But somebody at CBS Radio had heard her and contracts were drawn up for her to appear on a show with Arthur Tracy, "the Street Singer". This was potentially a huge opportunity, as Tracy's was one of the most popular shows on radio at the time. At the crucial moment the booking collapsed with the death of Ella's mother. Orphaned and a minor, she had nobody to take the legal respon-sibility of signing a contract for her, and within a few days she returned to the amateur talent contest circuit. Despite the success of her subsequent career, Ella's most vivid memory of her life was of a talent contest at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem when she was booed off stage.

Ella worked her first professional week for $50 at the Harlem Opera House where she sang with Tiny Bradshaw's band. The Chick Webb band followed Bradshaw into the theatre. In performance Webb remained behind his drums and the band was fronted by the showman / comedian Bardu Ali. Ali and Benny Carter urged Chick to add Ella to the band. But the diminutive drummer would have none of it, happy with the nondescript male crooner he had hired. "He just didn't want a girl singer. So finally they hid me in his dressing-room and forced him to listen. He agreed to take me on a one- nighter to Yale the next day. Tiny and the chorus girls had all kicked in to buy me a gown. The following week we opened at the Savoy Ballroom."

The Webb band, with Ella, stayed at the Savoy and made history, riding the crest of Harlem's passion for dancing and reputedly playing totally irresistible jazz music. At an early stage Chick became Ella's guardian. Both recorded for Decca, and Ella's contract with the company was long and binding. Ella made her first record ("Love and Kisses") with Webb in 1935. Most famous among her many hits with the Webb band was "A-Tisket A-Tasket, My Little Yellow Basket", a child's novelty song recorded in 1938.

By the time Webb died in 1939 Ella had made such a name for herself with both the public and her fellow musicians that she was able to take over the band and lead it for the next two years. But such was her drawing power that she decided to work as a solo artist and began appearing in cabaret and in theatres. Decca made the most of their contract and her jazz versions of numbers like "Lady Be Good" and "Flying Home" reinforced her international reputation.

Her marriage to the great jazz bassist Ray Brown lasted from 1948 to 1952. In 1948, Brown was a member of Granz's JATP unit and Ella turned up at one of the concerts to see him. She was spotted in the audience, and somebody asked her to sing on stage. Granz grudgingly agreed to let her. Ella sang so well that, in the vernacular, she knocked everybody out, including Granz who offered her a contract on the spot.

She stayed with him for the rest of her career and their relationship was so good that no further contracts were necessary. But the contract with Decca still had years to run. Granz wanted Ella to record for his own Verve label, but try as he might he could not release her from the Decca agreement. For several years he had to cut out all her contributions from his series of JATP concert albums, and it was not until 1955 that she was finally able to leave Decca and sing for Verve.

Granz became her personal manager, although he lived most of the time in Switzerland. Every time she was to record he would fly to the United States to manage the sessions. But the two had their disagreements, as was natural in such a long relationship.

"I remember one time in Milan," Granz said, "she wouldn't sing `April In Paris', even though it was her big record of the time: she let the audience shout her into `Lady Be Good' instead. When she came offstage she yelled at me, and I yelled louder at her, and we didn't speak to one another for three days. Some night I may tell her to do six songs, but she feels good and goes out there and stays on for an hour and a half. It's part of her whole approach to life - the desire to sing and please people by singing."

In 1955 Ella and Peggy Lee appeared in the gangster film Pete Kelly's Blues where the emphasis was laid more on the singing than on the shooting. This was a marvellous platform for the two singers. Ella also had a role in the film Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960).

One of Granz's few failures in music was his handling of Duke Ellington when Duke and his band were under contract to him at periods during the Fifties and Sixties. It seems the two men did not get on well. Despite the fact that the band was at one of its musical peaks, Duke's work for Granz, although good, was comparatively unsuccessful. Shortly after it had recorded the inspired Shakespearian suite "Such Sweet Thunder" for Columbia in 1957, Granz teamed the Ellington orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald to record the Duke Ellington Song Book albums. The results were good but flawed and not a match for the other Song Book albums Ella had recorded. "It was a panic scene," she said, "with Duke almost making up the arrangements as we went along. Duke is a genius. I admire him as much as anyone in the world: but doing it that way, even though it was a lot of fun at times, got to be kind of nerve-wracking."

More care was taken with a 1965 collaboration when Granz enlisted the arranger / pianist Jimmy Jones to prepare everything in advance. The following year Ella and the Ellington band toured Europe together and a film was made of their performance as the main attraction at the Antibes jazz festival. Ella sang all over the world during the Sixties and toured regularly in Latin America, Europe and the Far East.

Her career was interrupted in 1971 when she had surgery for serious eye trouble, and she cut down on her appearances from then until 1973. But she did sing with the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1972, and during the next three years worked with no less than 40 different symphony orchestras.

Granz recorded Ella in every conceivable situation, usually with great artistic success. She was equally at home in front of the Count Basie band or with the simple and tasteful solo backing of Joe Pass's guitar. Granz insisted that she be treated with the respect he knew she deserved and chose her recitals with care. One of the most unusual settings, for such a puller of huge crowds, was the confined room of the Ronnie Scott Club in London, where she sang in the summer of 1974.

Very sensitive to criticism, she was distressed by an article in Life magazine in which Frank Sinatra gave his assessment of his contemporaries. "Frank said I didn't know how to breathe right and that my phrasing was all wrong. I was so upset about that that I really couldn't sing for a week."

She continued to respond to the enormous demand for her during the Eighties and the quality of her recordings remained prodigiously high, excepting one ill-conceived collaboration on an album of Gershwin tunes which had her accompanied by Andre Previn on piano. Although she never noised her philanthropy, it came out during this time that she paid for the maintenance of a day care centre in Watts, the slum area of Los Angeles.

It was thought that her career had ended in 1986 when she was admitted to intensive care with heart trouble, but after a long recuperation she returned in 1988 with concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and in Carnegie Hall and stole the show with her swinging finale to ABC-TV's tribute to Sammy Davis Jnr.

On 12 February 1992 one of the most illustrious collections of jazz musicians ever assembled came together for "Hearts for Ella", a benefit for the American Heart Association at New York's Lincoln Centre. The jazz musicians included Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Red Rodney, David Sanborn, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Phil Woods, Joe Wilder, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, George Shearing and Louise Bellson, and the band was led by Benny Carter, the man who first discovered her. Ella duetted with the violinist Itzhak Perlman who, with Lena Horne, introduced the show.

She suffered from severe diabetes in her last years and sang from a wheelchair at Carnegie Hall the next year when she was joined by Joe Temperley, Eddie Barefield and once again Benny Carter. As her illness worsened she had to have first one and then the other of her legs removed.

By now her voice was not as smooth as it had been, but some thought this, which somehow lifted the feeling of infallibility and thus predictability in her singing, to be an improvement. "I love giving concerts," she said. "Doesn't weaken me, strengthens me. I look out there at the audience, especially the young ones. I feel the love they give me and I try to give it back with my songs." She toured again in the first half of 1990 but suffered dehydration and had to return home to rest.

Of her late work Norman Granz wrote, "Ella's voice has clearly changed, as has her range. But it has acquired a deeper and richer quality over the years. Most importantly, her mastery of time remains unparalleled." It seems likely that her career will also remain unparalleled, for there is no need for anyone to try to do again what she did so well and we must be glad that so much of it remains on record for future generations to savour.

Perhaps her epitaph should be the title of a piece Duke Ellington wrote to celebrate her, "Beyond Category".

Steve Voce

Ella Fitzgerald, singer: born Newport News, Virginia 25 April 1917; married 1948 Ray Brown (marriage dissolved 1952); died Beverly Hills, California 15 June 1996.