August 2, 2007

Memorable Moment in Music: Ella Fitzgerald discovered at Amateur Night @ The Apollo Theatre


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:

Wait ‘Til You See Him (De-Phazz remix) – Ella Fitzgerald
from Verve Remixed

Angel Eyes (Layo & Bushwacka Remix) – Ella Fitzgerald
from Verve Remixed 2



10 Comments »

  • heather.
    i love that you’ve introduced jazz to your site, and truly wouldn’t mind more of it too.
    i’m a big fan of the jazz. i collect it on vinyl.
    nothing like a little “spin the black jazz circle”.

    Jimmy Diggs — August 2, 2007 @ 8:58 am

  • Great post;Ella had style,poise,elan and humanity.She was a singers’ singer and could moonwalk with her ‘scat’ adventures like all the great 20th century adventurers.

    russell — August 2, 2007 @ 9:01 am

  • I love me some Ella Fitz. If you like Billie, check out Madelaine Peyroux. She has a very similar sound (at least to my ears).

    Maloney — August 2, 2007 @ 11:45 am

  • Thanks for the post, I really lean toward the Jazz vocalist with what little I listen of jazz and love to hear the ‘behind the music’ story of these great artists that brought this music to the masses. Thanks for your posts as always.

    Stephen K. — August 2, 2007 @ 12:01 pm

  • Nice post, but I think ya forgot to mention that the musical maestro Ella hooked up with was the inimitable Chick Webb, a tiny hunched back drummer dude that played no small part in her becoming the talk of the town…

    Some of her earliest and most swingin’ material comes from that era, and it’s onstage at the Savoy as a teen, fronting web’s crack band that she earned her improvisational stage legs. There’s nothing like being exposed to the Harlem nightlife, wacky dust, muggles and all that to get a young girl revved up and ready for the big time. Chick even became her legal guardian to keep her on the road.

    In fact, it was Chick’s band that Ella puther name on after his early death due to his medical frailities in 1939…

    Reportedly Chick had to convince his then manager Moe to let the somewhat homely young girl into the group, telling him “Don’t Look at her…listen to her.”

    more on Chick’s role in Ella’s career here and if ya don’t believe me about the wacky Dust look here.

    m — August 2, 2007 @ 2:58 pm

  • I didn’t know this story heather. Thank you. I still watch Live at The Apollo almost every week and love the story of the Tree Of Hope.

    http://tinyurl.com/yw5wvy

    I didn’t miss out on jazz music, but I missed out on a lot of soulful jazz vocalists. Cassandra Wilson and Lizz Wright are future jazz icons not to be missed.

    debs — August 2, 2007 @ 8:57 pm

  • Oooh, and speaking of Ella and Louis, I really like their cover of “Summertime”. You know, as opposed to to 3,000 other people that have covered it. :D And you’re definately right about playful- I can hear it especially on “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. It sounds like something off the soundtrack to a Doris Day/Rock Hudson romatic comedy but much better.

    Shelby — August 2, 2007 @ 11:48 pm

  • Heather,

    Good post. One of my favorite Christmas songs is Baby, It’s Cold Outside. I probably have 20 versions of the song. And without a doubt her version with Louis Jordan is by far the best recording of the song ever. She’s the lady!

    Matthias — August 3, 2007 @ 10:42 am

  • If you like Ella, check out the album “Sings the Cole Porter Song Book”:

    http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:gzfoxqugldse

    Her singing combined with his songs; it doesn’t get any better than this.

    Anonymous — August 3, 2007 @ 10:52 am

  • you think scatting is rad? I think the word rad is rad!

    jakehutch — August 8, 2007 @ 3:17 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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