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Women’s Day Jazz Special: The Brilliant Ella Fitzgerald

The vocalist’s sensitivity to the intent of the composer made her almost several singers rolled into one, a truly phenomenal package

Sunil Sampat Mar 06, 2021

American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Photo: William P. Gottlieb/Wikimedia Commons

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Bing Crosby was a hugely popular vocalist in the late 1930s and well into the next decade. For his type of performance, Crosby practically had a monopoly. One day, a very excited manager came up to Bing and said, “Hey boss! I just heard a new singer called Frank Sinatra. They say his voice is a once-in-a-lifetime voice.” A morose Crosby just remarked, “But why does it have to be in my lifetime!”

The manager was right and the Sinatra story is now history. His was that ‘once in a lifetime’ voice. He could easily be the greatest ever male singer of the popular idiom. He also sang some jazz on occasion.

But, let’s face it. For every fine male jazz singer, there are several women jazz singers who have been quite exceptional. The impact of singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Carmen MacRae, Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson among others have actually gone a long way in defining the ‘jazz sound’ for several decades. Each of these greats had a very special way of delivering a song.

Then there is Ella Fitzgerald.

In terms of range, longevity and expression, it is hard to look beyond the phenomenal Ms. Ella Fitzgerald for versatility. If there is a voice encyclopedia of ‘modern’ sound in popular music and jazz, it is practically a one mare race and Ella is her name.

A well-known American composer and conductor was asked what he would present to a Martian to describe “our” music to planet Mars; he said without hesitation, “I would present him with the complete Ella Fitzgerald songbooks. It is the concise, definitive example of our music.” This is not meant to diminish the stupendous contribution of other great women jazz vocalists in the least. That would be both inaccurate and unfair to the fabulous divas who have embellished jazz with the richness of their contributions; each diva has been brilliant in her own way and their place in the stardom of jazz is undisputed and stellar. A future Jazz Corner promises to discuss the brilliance of these great vocalists.

Ella has her own, unique place in the jazz firmament and this column is focused on her rich and varied canvas of jazz vocals.

She mastered the art and craft of delivering ballads like none other. Her rendition of these ballads and the inherent poetry within them made you sure that one hundred percent of what the lyricist intended to convey was reaching us via the voice of Ella. Ms. Fitzgerald introduces the listeners to the flavors and taste in the lyrics of the songs. Her legendary “songbooks” are a collection of songs from the great songwriters like Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and others from the golden era of inspired, sensitive compositions. In her own, unique style, Ella would sing the preamble lyrics to the compositions, reciting these almost as a poem. Bringing out the nuances and subtleties of the famous songbooks seemed to be a specialty of Ella Fitzgerald’s and she has ensured that their impact is everlasting. If you haven’t heard them, a listen is highly recommended!

Ella’s sensitivity to the intent of the composer made her almost several singers rolled into one, a truly phenomenal package.

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The singer started her career as a teenager with the big band of Chick Webb; in a few short years, Ella became the band leader of this unit when Webb passed away. Ella was thus keenly aware of the workings and power of a jazz big band. It was an important lesson learned by this young singer and she used it to good effect throughout her career.

Thus, listening to her with the Duke Ellington band, one feels that she raised her vocal craft a few notches. Duke’s compositions, his orchestral emphases and the highs in his music are brought alive by Ella’s vocal rendering. No wonder the Duke had dubbed Ella Fitzgerald as being “beyond category,” a compliment as flattering as it is appropriate.

Then again when you hear Ella’s vocals with the more swinging, laid back band of Count Basie, Madame Fitzgerald gets into the Count’s mood and blends seamlessly with the flow, again creating masterpieces that can be framed and mounted.

Ella recorded well over 130 albums. Her live albums from her concerts in Berlin, London, Hollywood and other venues demonstrate a lively, exuberant aspect of her singing. Then again, paired with guitarist Joe Pass for a couple of duo albums brings out an intimate and introspective aspect to her renditions. In her ‘jam’ sessions in the Jazz at the Philharmonic series, she was matching wits with some of the greatest jazz instrumentalists of her era on equal terms, using her voice as an instrument. Her duet sessions with Louis Armstrong are simply delicious! Visit Ella’s music and you are sure to find something you will like. There is such a storehouse of goodies in the expanse of her discography.

What a wonderful gift it is for us that recordings of Ella as also of other jazz masters are available to us via the marvel of technology. Use it, listen and give yourself a treat, guys.

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Stream Ella Fitzgerald’s music on Spotify below:

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