Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:21 June 2024 


A consummate singer, Ella Fitzgerald became known as the "First Lady of Song". This lofty appellation was not simply dropped in her lap; the singer began competing on the US Talent Show circuit as a teenager and recorded and performed for almost half a century. She did not sing the blues, but most definitely paid her dues. 

With a voice boasting great purity of tone, an enviable vocal range and impeccable timing, Fitzgerald was influenced stylistically by Bing Crosby and instrumentally by Louis Armstrong. Both these gentlemen were artists who worked in the popular music arena, although Armstrong’s jazz legacy is based on his early work as a hugely innovative and influential trumpet soloist. For Ella, it was her "scat" singing—jazz vocal improvisation—that linked her most strongly to Armstrong and the jazz tradition.

In a time of racial segregation and patriarchal dominance, it was never going to be easy establishing a career. Fitzgerald’s association with Norman Granz was a key factor in her success. The impresario and record label owner was a lifetime promoter of jazz and a staunch supporter of social equality. 

Granz became Fitzgerald’s manager in 1955 when she was already established as a performer and recording artist. He created the famous Verve record label in the following year, recording many jazz luminaries and arranging countless dates for everyone from Billie Holiday to Benny Carter. For Ella Fitzgerald, it was Granz’s suggestion of a series of recordings of American songwriters that was his masterstroke. Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Jerome Kern… these legendary composers and lyricists created what became known as The Great American Songbook. In a series of popular and timeless albums, Ella Fitzgerald recorded these songs so beautifully that her versions became benchmarks… perhaps for all time.

Verve’s aptly titled "Great Women Of Song" series is a welcoming way to enter the world where jazz meets (mid-20th century) pop, and more. The Ella Fitzgerald title we are featuring today is a superb primer, revealing both the genre and Ella’s artistry. "Dream A Little Dream Of Me", for example, opens with a brief scat by Fitzgerald before Louis Armstrong’s trumpet enters. Louis takes a verse too, with Ella gently improvising behind him. Ella’s scatting prowess, by the way, is brilliantly demonstrated on "Blue Skies" (Berlin), which closes out side one of the LP.

Whether performing in front of a band or simply accompanied by a pianist, Ella’s voice draws you in with effortless class, crystal diction and impeccable phrasing. Listen to "Someone To Watch Over Me" (Gershwin) where it’s just piano and vocalist; wistful but never maudlin, hopeful but never gushing, it is a delightful performance that was originally issued on a 78 RPM side in 1950. From a recording a decade later comes another lovely voice + piano performance, this time Errol Garner’s evocative "Misty". The mastering has been done with care and precision; the different arrangements and studio equipment never jar or distract. 

One of the smoothest big band performances here is the Nelson Riddle Orchestra’s "All The Things You Are" (Kern). It is no accident that when Linda Ronstadt visited the American Songbook for a series of albums in the 1980s she made a beeline for Nelson Riddle, master of elegant swing.

Aside from large orchestras and single pianists, it is fitting that we close out this review with the third important setting for jazz vocalists: the small group. "Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered" (Rogers/Hart) showcases Ella in front of a quartet comprising piano, guitar, bass and drums. Yet it is that velvet voice that holds centre stage, then and now. 

Ella Fitzgerald: truly a great woman of song.


© Bruce Jenkins—June 2024

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