Friday, July 20, 2012

Ella and Duke: A Musical Love Affair

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

According to the following insert notes by Alun Morgan to Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald: Live at the Greek Theater Los Angeles [Status DSTS 1013]:

“The night Benny Goodman played his first Carnegie Hall concert - January 16, 1938 - turned out to be a momentous occasion in many ways. After Carnegie Hall many went along to New York's Savoy Ballroom to witness a "Battle Of The Bands" between the orchestras of Chick Webb and Count Basie. Duke Ellington was in the audience (and he was cajoled into playing some piano himself) and that may well have been the first time Duke heard Ella Fitzgerald, for she was Chick Webb's vocalist and on the threshold of her highly successful career.

Over the years Duke and Ella became amongst the biggest and most impor­tant names in music but it took impresario Norman Grant to bring them togeth­er on record, for the first time, in 1957 for Ella's "Duke Ellington Song Book" 4-LP set. It was Grant who booked them to appear together at the 1966 Nice Jazz Festival and a few months later they were together again for a seven day engagement at the open-air Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, North Hollywood. The standard Ellington discographies list an appearance at the Greek on September 24, 1966 but this CD comprises previously un-issued material from concerts the previous day when Duke opened the proceedings followed by Ella and her trio, then a closing segment by Ella and the Ellington band.”

As the music on the video tribute that concludes this piece attests, Ella and Duke were made for each other.

Scatting and Ella were also made for each other and unlike many vocalists who make what virtually amounts to sound effects when their scatting, Ella knew what she was doing.

She improvised on the melody of the tune and developed “lines” that flowed, fit and made sense. Many horn players admired the improvisations that Ella sang when she was scatting.

She was one of the very best at it because she wasn’t just trying for the “effect.”

Ella understood that what made scatting effective was understatement.

Which is why she didn’t use scatting very often, preferring instead to rephrase the actual lyrics of the tune, especially in the form of rhythmic riffs to add extra punch and power to the music.

On our video tribute to she and “The Duke of Ellington,” Ella sings Sweet Georgia Brown, a tune which Ted Gioia describes in his recent published The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire [New York: Oxford University Press, 2012]:

“The popularity of this … [song’s chord] progression among jazz musicians is well warranted. The harmonies, which move leisurely from dominant chord to dominant chord, are ideal for supporting blues and funk licks of every denomination; and the final resolution offers a pleasant surprise since the tonic chord doesn't appear in the first 12 bars of the song, an opening that proves in retrospect to be a mas­terful exercise in misdirection. Finally, thanks to endless proselytizing by a world-famous group of itinerant basketball players [i.e.: The Harlem Globetrotters], the song is invariably recog­nized and greeted with enthusiasm by audiences everywhere, no matter how modest their jazz expertise.”

Ella and the band do four choruses of Sweet Georgia Brown in an emphatic medium tempo that is interspersed with a little scatting and a lot of call-and-response interplay and rhythm ‘n blues riffs. It closes with a cool tag which kicks in at 2:24 minutes.