Maybe you’ve never really “gotten” jazz. Maybe the very mention of jazz makes you think of that weird male nanny (“I prefer child technician“) in Jerry Maguire, always trying to pass off jazz mixtape cassettes to friends, and waxing rapturiously ecstatic at the mention of his favorite bass solos. Although I am too unfamiliar with the depth of the genre to be called an actual “jazz fan,” I’ve developed a level of appreciation for the great voices of jazz, and the pathos and the richness rolled up in their songs. Ella Fitzgerald is one I particularly love, and the third memorable moment in music in the WXPN series I am contributing to is the cool story of how Ella was discovered.
Other jazz singers that I appreciate each brought something unique to their recordings. Billie Holiday was mournful and smoky. Nina Simone was the boss and always sounded like she felt a sin coming on. Etta James was gonna come and love you, honey, and it was a whole lot of woman to love. But whenever I hear Ella, I am always struck by how classy and elegant her voice was, how pitch perfect and pure, just floating above the music and not mucked down in it. It always makes me smile.
Here’s the story: In 1934, the United States was limping back from the Great Depression. Ella Jane Fitzgerald was 17 and living in Harlem. Her mama had recently died in a car accident, and where Ella has previously been a pretty good kid, she was now losing interest in school, working alternately as a bordello-lookout and a runner for Mafia-affiliated tasks (come on Ella). She had grown up deeply loving her records, listening over and over to artists like the great Louis Armstrong and The Boswell Sisters.
On the night of November 21, 1934 Ella went with some girlfriends on a lark to compete at one of the famous “Amateur Nights” at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. At the time, the competition was only a few months old, but since then it has grown to give exposure to artists as varied as James Brown, Lauryn Hill, Ben E. King, and the Isley Brothers [see full list] who were just getting started in their career.
Ella’s name was pulled from the many entrants that night for a chance to compete. She originally intended to sing and dance, but was intimidated by some earlier performers that she felt danced well, so she decided to just sing – two covers. She couldn’t believe it, but she won that night. From that performance she went on to form a band and tour the country, eventually being signed to Decca and causing the creation of the Verve label essentially around her and her music. Called “The First Lady of Jazz,” and a woman who could scat like no other (check the lesson), I love how it all started from such inauspicious, total indie-rock-dream-discovery-scenario beginnings.
I Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues – Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass
(she ain’t got no fancy to tickle)
Dream A Little Dream Of Me – Ella Fitzgerald
Flying Home – Ella Fitzgerald
I think that scatting is rad
Knowing how much she idolized Louis Armstrong when she was growing up, I also enjoy hearing their playful work together. In stark contrast to Armstrong’s raspy struggle against the song, Ella’s parts kick in with such grace:
They Can’t Take That Away From Me – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
Even though she died in 1996, Ella definitely leaves her legacy in today’s music. One concept that’s especially dope is the whiz-bang remix series that Verve has been releasing. Everyone wants a piece of Ella and her fantastic voice, a sound that still sounds fresh: