Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Paul Desmond: Neoclassicism in Jazz [Part 1]



OUP Material, Copyright Line, and Acknowledgement
IP Number
THE IMPERFECT ART by Giola (1988) 2800w from "IV: Neoclassicism in Art" pp.81-91
 © 1998 by Ted Gioia  By permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

6000150

Introduction

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

There are lot’s of ways to learn about Jazz for as the noted Jazz author Doug Ramsey has advised in Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers [Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1989, p. 6]:

"You don't need a degree in musicology to understand the language of jazz. ... Jazz is based on the common language of music understood around the world. The listener, whether musician or non-musician, can learn the idioms and vernacular of the language. It is simply a matter of absorption through exposure. My only caveat is this: in the learning process, don't spend your time listening to imitators or second-raters."

Doug’s caveat holds true as well for Jazz writers: only read the best.

Certainly, by any standard of judgment, three of the best authors about Jazz are Doug, Gene Lees and Ted Gioia.

I would think that as the youngest member of this distinguished triumvirate, Ted might be flattered to share the following, paraphrased words of praise which Gene articulated about Doug’s writing in his Foreword to Doug’s Jazz Matters:

“A decent and  respectful curiosity fills Doug Ramsey’s writing. When he expresses reservations about someone’s work, he does so gently and reluctantly.

… And he praises beautifully. This is the hardest thing to do in criticism. Any writer can make himself look clever by excoriation, which calls for witty analogies and comparisons, but a rare and sensitive gift goes into the writing of sensitive praise.

And Doug has the gift of imagery, rather like that of Whitney Balliett, to give impressions of music through words.

Doug writes for the ear, he has a habit of writing only what reads well aloud….

‘The primary responsibility in writing about anything is to help people understand,’ Doug said.

That, above all, is what Doug Ramsey does.”

And that is also what Ted Gioia does, he informs the reader. Whether he is writing about one style or school of Jazz such as West Coast Jazz, or whether his discourse is about the sweeping panorama of the history of Jazz itself, Ted gives his readers knowledge and insights into how to better understand and appreciate Jazz.

Yet, Ted is no stodgy academician, but rather, an interesting storyteller who makes reading about Jazz fun and enjoyable.

His writing also enriches our listening experience by introducing fresh and different perspectives about the music for as he states in the Acknowledgements to The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture: [click on book title for order information]

“… mine is a decidedly ‘thoughtful’ … approach to Jazz.

Doug and Ted’s musings about Jazz also intersect at another point along its spectrum of personalities. Each has offered a treatment on the subject of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond [although in Doug’s case, it is more like a Magnus Opus!].

In The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, Ted’s unique views on Paul are characterized as part of what he refers to as Neoclassicism in Jazz [pp. 81 -91].

Ted and the kind folks at Oxford University Press have graciously granted JazzProfiles copyright permission to replicate his description of what this categorization entails and why Paul’s style of playing fits so neatly into it.

As part of an ongoing series, the editorial staff plans to offer future features on other artists who approach Jazz in a “Neoclassicist” manner including John Lewis, Ahmad Jamal and Miles Davis.

So as not to confuse the reader, before describing Neoclassicism, the excerpt from Ted’s work which follows initially describes Romanticism in Jazz as a basis for contrasting these two radically different approaches to the music.

THE IMPERFECT ART, pp. 81-91, © 1998 by Ted Gioia  By permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Drawing parallels between stages in jazz’s development and periods in the evolution of other arts is, at best, a questionable endeavor. Yet the pronounced obsession with individual art­ists which has characterized the reactions of jazz fans, critics, and even musicians at least since the time of Louis Arm­strong—reaching its peak with the figure of John Coltrane— can perhaps be best understood as the outgrowth of a tempera­ment which is essentially "romantic" in nature.

Romanticism, with its idealization of the expressive artist, created a new aesthetic vocabulary in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century—one that fixated on the act of artistic pro­duction; one that glorified the passing moment of artistic in­spiration as a secular epiphany; one in which the artist often became more important than what he created. In many in­stances the artist's life actually became, in his eyes and in the eyes of others, itself a work of art. With Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Goethe, Wagner, and many of their contemporaries, biography and aesthetics begin to coalesce. The term "roman­ticism" has become worn with use, and, as more than one critic has advocated, much might be gained by discarding it entirely. Yet, as William Thrall has noted, "viewed in philo­sophical terms, romanticism does have a fairly definite mean­ing.”10 [William Thall, A Handbook to Literature, New York: Odyssey Press, 1960, p. 431] It designates a view of the world "which tends to see the individual at the very center of all life and all experience, and it places him, therefore, at the center of art." This aes­thetic sensibility was often seen as having a special affinity with the musical arts, As M. H. Abrams has noted, the Ger­man critics in particular saw " music as the apex and norm of the pure and non-representative expression of spirit and feeling against which to measure the relative expressiveness of all other art forms . . .

[I]nquiry into the neo-representative character of music joined with many collateral influences to strain and shatter the frame of neo-classic theory, and to reorient all critical discussion toward the new magnetic north of the expressive and creative artist.11 [M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and The Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1953, p. 94]

The inherent romanticist elements in music are realized with particular force in jazz. In no other area of creative en­deavor is there so little distance between the artist and his work of art. In the spontaneous act of improvisation, the art­ist has no opportunity to give his music a separate existence, to revise it, to reconsider it, to mull over it. The notion of the autonomous work of art—so fashionable in recent intellectual circles—has no place in jazz. Jazz music lives and dies in the moment of performance, and in that moment the musician is his music. His improvisation is the purest expression possible of the artist's emotions and feelings, and it is a purity which is only heightened by the absence of the spoken word. The German romanticist Novalis, arguing for the primacy of the musical arts, wrote towards the close of the eighteenth cen­tury: "The musician takes the essence of his art out of him­self—and not the slightest suspicion of imitation can befall him."12 [Cited in ibid., 93]
With his a cappella introduction to the West End Blues, Louis Armstrong ushered in a period of romanticism in jazz which has become, if anything, more pronounced with the passage of time. The increasingly individualistic nature of the music, the obsessive reactions of the jazz world to figures such as Parker or Coltrane, the almost complete breakdown of bar­riers between the artist and his work of art—all these legacies of Armstrong are the clear signs of an aesthetic sensibility which is essentially romanticist in character.

The benefits of such a musical environment are unmistak­able. Jazz, as a community of creative individuals, fosters a pluralism which is healthy for the art form as a whole. It lacks the embedded institutions of the other arts, yet a stronger em­phasis on group norms, exercised perhaps through academia or other mechanisms of standardization, would probably have stifled some of jazz's greatest talents. One could not imagine a Charles Mingus or a Thelonious Monk thriving in an environment n which artistic success depended on access to fel­lowships, government grants, academic appointments, and the like.

The benefits of jazz's pluralism, however, have not been achieved without a price. The attendant fragmentation of the jazz community has led to a lack of cohesion among practi­tioners, an absence of institutions for preserving and passing on the music's traditions, and, perhaps worst of all, a steady erosion of generally accepted critical standards which define what is good and bad in the music. Without the latter, musi­cians—as well as listeners and critics—may find their isolation only growing. The lack of common standards and a common musical vocabulary has exacerbated the collapse of the jazz world into countless schools and tendencies, each unable to communicate with those outside of its own small world.

Jazz has become, in effect, a music of perpetual romanti­cism. The jazz world has always exhibited a manic quality in which the music's inherent vitality threatened to run away with itself. Today this strain is more dominant than ever be­fore. By contrast, the powerful broadening and unifying in­fluence of an Armstrong, an Ellington, a Parker is now ap­parently a thing of the past.

V

Within this pervasive aesthetic of emotional excess, however, a handful of musicians have tried to temper the music's natu­ral impulse towards self-indulgence. They have created music of restraint, of control, of economy. These are the neoclassicists of jazz. Like neoclassical artists in other arts, they attempt to pare away the excesses of previous generations to reveal an art that is pristine and timeless. Their paradigm is the sculp­tor, whose work emerges from sharply cut and precisely de­fined lines, and whose warmth of expression is tempered by the cool, distant, and unforgiving medium with which he works. The neoclassicist recognizes that self-restraint is the essence of artistic style. A style which includes everything ceases to be a style—it has become an encyclopedia of tech­niques. The artist who embraces all of these techniques has, by the same token, reduced himself to a mere craftsman. Art begins only when some techniques are favored, others dis­carded.

Jazz, for these artists, is not just a music of possibilities, but rather a music of constrained possibilities. The temptation to­wards all-inclusiveness may have ruined more talent than all of the more publicized vices of the musician's life. Certainly when artistic norms collapse—as in our own day—the great art­ist must impose constraints upon himself. He must reject on his own what others are content to let go by.

Neoclassicism in jazz is not restricted to a specific time pe­riod or geographical area. Artists as different as Lester Young, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Count Basic, Stan Getz, John Lewis, Miles Davis, and Paul Desmond can be included in its ranks, although under almost any circumstances the neo­classicist is part of a minority that distances itself from the more frenetic tradition of romanticism which permeates jazz. Thus the neoclassicist may appear to be perpetually out of fashion, a lone voice in the jazz world.

Jazz, in the hands of a neoclassicist, is a music of balance, of care, of restraint. With an unabashed lyricism and a subtle sense of formal structure, the neoclassicist displays his affinity for jazz's rich tradition of vocal music. The most successful collaborations of jazz singers and instrumentalists—the Billie Holiday/Lester Young recordings come immediately to mind-have more often than not been a part of this neoclassical heritage.

Yet the neoclassicist can often be distinguished not so much by his positive virtues as by what he excludes. Some pundit once remarked that the most telling thing about Jane Austen was that she never mentioned the French Revolution in her writings. A similar perspective, it seems, could be applied fruitfully to the study of musicians. Indeed one of the most striking characteristics of recent jazz in the romantic tradition is its all-inclusiveness. It attempts to encompass the whole musical world, from Third World folk music to the twelve-tone row. Neoclassicism, in contrast, is a music of exclusion, of omission.

VI

In the case of saxophonist Paul Desmond, one never needed to look far to find these omissions. The bebop clich├ęs, the ob­session with playing fast, the memorized licks which char­acterized jazz saxophone playing in the post-Charlie Parker era—all of these were noticeably absent in Desmond's music. As Dave Brubeck once mentioned, with no slight intended: "Paul's big contribution is going to be that he didn't copy Charlie Parker."13 [Downbeat, Sept. 15, 1960, p. 17]

A comparison between Desmond and his contemporary Charlie Parker is illuminating. Parker, perhaps the most bril­liant improviser in the history of jazz, was at his best when the tempo was fast and the chord structure was complex: his virtuosity delighted in musical obstacle courses such as "Ko-Ko" or "The Hymn." Desmond, in contrast, seldom played at very fast tempos, and when he did one sensed that it was done un­willingly. Not that his technique was not equal to the task; rather it was Desmond's overriding concern with creating a melodic and thematically organized improvisation that led him to eschew the facile glibness of many of the beboppers. Unlike the less talented descendants of Parker who followed a credo of "let your fingers do the walking," Desmond played a thinking man's jazz with solos that often made punning reference to other compositions and improvisations. On an early recording of "You Go to My Head” for example, Des­mond inserts a quote from a Charlie Parker blues in the midst of a most un-Parker-like passage. In other contexts he would incorporate long extracts from Chet Baker or Gerry Mulligan solos into his own improvisations.

Desmond was born less euphoniously as Paul Emil Breitenfeld on November 15, 1924, in San Francisco. His father was once an organist for silent movies and later an arranger. Paul began studying clarinet in 1936 while at San Francisco Poly­technic High School, and continued with it until 1943 when he switched to the alto saxophone. That same year he went into the Army and spent the next three years in San Fran­cisco as part of the 253rd AGF band. "It was a great way to spend the war," Desmond later remarked. "We expected to get shipped out every month, but it never happened. Some­where in Washington our file must still be on the floor under a desk somewhere."14 [Ibid.] After leaving the Army, Desmond played briefly with the bands of Jack Fina and Alvino Rey before joining forces with Dave Brubeck in 1951, a collaboration that would continue for over a quarter of a century.

At some point during this period, Desmond discarded the name Breitenfeld for his more manageable stage name. He claimed that he came upon the name Desmond while paging through a phone book. The remark is appropriate: for an im­provising artist such as Desmond, the spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment decision is the basis of all he does. And Des­mond, more than most, let the philosophy of improvisation govern much of his life outside of music. His casual attitude went beyond the choice of a name. At its worst it encouraged a pronounced habit of procrastination, and Desmond was a procrastinator of almost legendary proportions. For years he spoke of writing a book about his experiences with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Only the title (How Many of You Are There in the Quartet? — according to Desmond, a favorite question of stewardesses) and one very funny chapter ever emerged.15 [It appeared in Punch on Jan. 10, 1973] Among his other intended projects was an album in which he planned to play each song in the style of a different alto player.

Perhaps the latter idea was only offered as a joke. With Desmond one could never tell. He once told an interviewer that he wanted his alto to sound like a very dry martini; whether his music attained this lofty goal is open to discus­sion, but of the dryness of his humor there can be no dispute. The humor figured prominently in his music—a rarity in mod­ern jazz, where the artists' self-conscious seriousness and the concert hall atmosphere of even nightclub performances casts a sombre aura over most of the music. As his close friend, jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote:

At times Paul was the wittiest of improvisers. His ear was extraordinarily quick and true, his mind moved with eerie swiftness. He could take a phrase that someone had played earlier or a musical reference that a friend in the audience would understand and insert it into his solo. He'd build on that phrase until he had turned it inside out and seven other ways. Usually this kind of quoting is trickery, but Paul made it cohere. In his music, as in his life, the absurd cohabited with the familiar.16
[Nat Hentoff, Village Voice, Aug. 22, 1977]

For much of his twenty-six-year career, Desmond found his musical skills overshadowed by the work of his longtime friend and collaborator Dave Brubeck. Brubeck, who studied with Darius Milhaud in the late 19405, was a pioneer in the syn­thesis of jazz and classical music—his piano work featured dense harmonies, a studied sense of rhythm, and the use of elements seemingly alien to jazz such as the twelve-tone row and odd time signatures. Yet Desmond was the unsung hero of the Brubeck Quartet; as much as the group's leader, Desmond was instrumental in shaping the ensemble's distinctive sound. His lyrical tone was immediately identifiable, and his ingenious compositions (most notably the group's biggest hit "Take Five") were an important part of the band's repertoire. Although not a student of Milhaud's, Desmond was involved with Brubeck's experimental work from the start. His affin­ity for classical music was also revealed in other ways—most markedly in his intonation, which was remarkably pure, es­pecially when contrasted with the "dirtier" sound favored by many of his contemporaries.

In the midst of a period in which cool jazz and West Coast jazz were increasingly the scorn of jazz critics, Desmond em­braced both with a vengeance. Desmond was well aware of what passed as fashionable in jazz circles; commenting on Bud Shank, a fellow Californian (although one transplanted from Ohio), Desmond said: "I sympathize with him because I have the same problem in my occupation, which is the problem of one who is sort of raised in the atmosphere of cool jazz trying to sound hostile enough to be currently accept­able.” 17 [Downbeat, Oct. 16, 1958, p. 43] In another interview he elaborated: "The things I'm after musically are clarity, emotional communication on a not-too-obvious level, form in a chorus that doesn't hit you over the head but is there if you look for it, humor, and construc­tion that sounds logical in an unexpected way. That and a good dependable high F-sharp and I'll be happy."18 [Downbeat, Sept. 15, 1960, p. 37]

The virtues Desmond enumerated are easy enough to list, but maddeningly difficult to attain. Desmond's dissatisfaction with his own playing frequently came to light in many of the interviews he gave over the years. As Lee Konitz, a contem­porary who shares many similarities with Desmond, com­mented: "I feel that Paul has experienced greatness, and once this feeling of playing what you really hear has been felt by a player, it's difficult to settle for less than this."19 [Ibid., p. 16]

One senses that towards the end of his life Desmond came closer than ever to realizing this goal. His last recordings re­veal an artist who is at peace with himself and who knows with a dogged assurance what it is he wants to express. The ravages of lung cancer may have lessened his stamina and shorted his phrases, but if anything this led Desmond to be even more refined and thoughtful in his playing.

The sardonic humor, however, remained. One wonders what to make of the cover of Live, the last album he saw released. Desmond is pictured seated alone in a club at closing time—the chairs are stacked on the tables, and Desmond is packed to go with a suitcase, or perhaps his saxophone case, at his side. The artist is smoking a cigarette, although even then he must have known he had only a short time before lung cancer would take its final toll. Another detail: if one looks closely, one notices little skulls and crossbones on Desmond's suspenders. These details, combined with the album's ironic title and Desmond's grim smile, are powerfully unnerving. The music inside, however, is every bit as beautiful as the album's cover is morbid. His solo on "Wave" could be a text­book example of solo construction, each chorus outdoing the previous one in inventiveness and incisiveness. Elsewhere, on his own composition "Wendy" or in his closing chorus on "Manha de Carnival" Desmond plays as well as at any point in his career. This is the music of a master.

The end was approaching fast. His last appearance in a re­cording studio was for friend Chet Baker's debut album with the Horizon label. He had been slated to play on the entire album, but had the stamina to record just one track before begging leave to go home and rest. Although he had rarely played in the preceding months, his tone was as pure as ever and his short haunting solo is as fitting a closing statement as any artist could wish to make.


His were the legacies of a man immersed in music. Des­mond's piano, left to Bradley Cunningham, now graces Bradley's in New York, and has acquired a reputation as one of the finest nightclub pianos in jazz. His alto was left to Brubeck's son Michael, with whom he shared a special closeness. Yet these pale beside his legacy to jazz fans through his many records and a few—too few—short writings. Desmond, a West Coast musician at a time when that was virtually synonymous with being unfashionable, had his ashes scattered over Big Sur country near his birthplace in San Francisco.”

Saturday, October 28, 2017

"Mama Jazz" - Ella Fitzgerald at 100: A Review of Leslie Gourse's "The Ella Fitzgerald Companion"

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


“Nobody probed to find out anything definitive or accurate about the childhood struggles of the young woman. Nobody realized that Ella’s hardships had forged her character as a loner and thoroughly committed musician in a brilliant and original American art form. Nobody seemed to realize that as a singer she was a genius, and certainly nobody predicted she would develop into a virtual flag of American popular music.”

“Given her inexhaustible inventiveness, and a range of nearly three octaves, she moved easily from a bluesy growl up into the stratosphere— with astounding clarity all the way. Ira Gershwin spoke for many composers when he said: "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them." Her famous Songbook recordings of Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Rodgers and Hart are masterworks. Having excelled in nearly every noteworthy period of the modern jazz era, Miss Fitzgerald set a timeless standard. Young fans in Italy named her "Mama Jazz." That she was.
- Leslie Gourse, Jazz author


I am a big fan of compilations.


When used as a noun in English, “compilation” means the action or process of producing something, especially a list, book, or report, by assembling information collected from other sources [i.e.: assembling previously separate items].


It is a technique that I use frequently to put together the blog features that are displayed on these pages so as to give the reader a fuller view of the Jazz topic or musician that’s being profiled.


One analogy that comes to mind is going out to dinner and ordering a bunch of starters or appetizers as the main meal; you get a variety of tastes this way instead of one main entre.


Another form of comparison is when you load up the CD changer or Mp3 player with a variety of music and then select “Random Play” to achieve a broader sampling of the music instead of listening to just one artist perform.


More specifically, as part of my celebration of the centenary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald [1917-2017], a woman who young Jazz fans in Italy affectionately call “Mama Jazz,” I have queued up selections from the many Songbooks that Ella recorded for Norman Granz’s Verve label in the 1950s and early 1960s..


For those who may be unfamiliar with these compilations, they include selections from many of the Great American Songbook master composers including Duke Ellington [3 CDs], Harold Arlen [2 CDs], Cole Porter [2 CDs], George and Ira Gershwin [3 CDs], Rodgers and Hart [2 CDs], Irving Berlin [2 CDs], and single CDs of the Johnny Mercer Songbook and the Jerome Kern Songbook.


All of them feature Ella primarily with big bands with the music arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, Paul Weston, Buddy Bregman, Billy May, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.


The assemblage of so much talent boggles the mind and let’s not leave out the beautiful conditions under which the recordings were engineered at the newly constructed Capitol Records recording studies on Vine Street, a block or two up from Hollywood Blvd, and the brilliant work of the many studio musicians who made these arrangements a musical reality.


Which brings me to Leslie Gourse’s The Ella Fitzgerald Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary. First published in 1998, two years after Ella’s death, Leslie’s book is a compilation “... of articles, interviews and reviews that originally appeared in a variety of publications” which are divided into five [5] sections:


Part One: Spring Is Here: The Early Years
Part Two: How High The Moon - On Her Own, Recording With Decca, 1939-55
Part Three: Everything I’ve Got - Norman Granz and the Songbooks, 1955-65
Part Four: How Long Has This Been Going On?, Living Icon, 1966-80
Part Five: Evening Star - Last Years. 1981-96


The list of contributors is a dazzling array of literary Jazz luminaries that includes Henry Pleasants, John S. Wilson, Leonard Feather, Len Lyons, Gary Giddins, Francis Davis, Will Friedwald, John Tynan, Ralph J. Gleason, Bill Coss, Stanley Dance, Earl Wilson, John Edward Hasse, Dom Cerulli and Nat Hentoff.


At the time of its writing, Leslie Gourse had written about Jazz for almost three decades. She edited The Billie Holiday Companion (1997) for Schirmer Books and is the author of Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (1997). Her articles have been in several newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Chicago Tribune, Down Beat, Harper's Bazaar, and many others.


Leslie explains how she went about developing her compilation in the following Introduction to her book.


"The only thing better than singing is more singing," Ella Fitzgerald toid May Okon, author of "She Still Gets Stage Fright," published in the Sunday News in New York on September 8, 1957. Ella went on: "What greater honors could come to a gal like me than being invited to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Monte Carlo Gala, as I was this year— and having an Ella Fitzgerald night at the Hollywood Bowl (with Duke Ellington's band) as I did last July 20th?"


Ella Fitzgerald had been winning top honors in the music polls for twenty years by then, beginning with first place as a vocalist in the first Down Beat magazine poll in 1937. The next year, 1938, she had her first million-record seller, "A Tisket, a Tasket." Although her career went through ups and downs in the 1940s, she was still referred to as "The First Lady of Song" in several places that decade and in a headline in the New York Times by 1951. In the mid-1950s her career took a mighty upward swing. By 1953 she had firmly secured the management of jazz impresario Norman Granz, founder of Jazz at the Philharmonic. He had at first ignored her, considering her to be a pop singer, not a jazz artist, but he revised his opinion, and his eventual alert attention to details of her bookings, her public image, and her private problems and his decision to have her record collections — songbooks — of the country's greatest popular composers beginning in 1956 made her a superstar.


But the hefty singer, who was about one hundred pounds overweight for most of her adult life and who shook visibly and twined her fingers round and round self-consciously when she performed at Royal Albert Hall in London as late as 1954, never really learned to take her stardom and prestige completely for granted. Sometimes she mentioned a nightmarish incident that had happened when she was sixteen years old. She had been competing in an amateur show in Harlem, when she and her accompanist went in different musical directions. The pianist played the wrong chords. Ella started singing out of tune and then fled the stage, while the audience booed and hooted. She always referred to the incident as if it had happened the day before.


Every reporter who met Ella noticed immediately how unprepossessing and innocent she seemed. She asked other celebrities for their autographs—and then wondered if they minded. She marveled when anyone wanted her autograph or when a head waiter picked up a check in a restaurant for her.
She was so shy and complex that it was the rare writer who obtained permission to interview her.


One night in 1954 backstage at Basin Street East, a jazz club where she was performing in New York, she told New York Post columnist Murray Kempton: "The other night I was so nervous. This is home. If you flop at home, where do you go after that? Then Benny Goodman came in. You know, with a musician, he will notice something. And Benny is not the kind to come back and say 'Gee Sis, you were crazy' when you know you weren't. And I was hoarse that night." Kempton mumbled that, of course, Benny Goodman wouldn't have noticed. "I don't know," Ella said. "He didn't come back to the dressing room afterward."


Kempton called the resulting column simply "She," describing her as a kid though she was nearly forty and celebrating her nineteenth year in the entertainment field though she had been singing professionally since her teens. "She stands with those great arms, that self-deprecating smile, severely frontal in the Byzantine fashion, the mother, the little sister . . . the hope of us all ... a cultural force, a permanent tradition, a great river. ..."


At this time Norman Granz was taking over the helm of Ella's career. Granz had been wanting to sign Ella exclusively to Verve for a long time. He finally acquired the leverage when Decca wanted to release an album including artists under Granz's authority; Granz agreed to let Decca use those artists if Decca would release Ella from her contract before it ran out. Decca did it. Ella signed with Granz in December 1955, and she was poised on the threshold of a great surge forward in her career.


Kempton's article appeared during one of Ella's engagements at Basin Street East in 1954. Gathered to salute Ella were representatives of leading European jazz magazines including Jazz Hot of France and Musica Jazz of Italy; Ella's fellow singers Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, and Harry Belafonte; trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie; and other stars from Broadway, broadcasting, jazz, and the record industry. Congratulatory telegrams and cablegrams poured in from around the world. Ella received eighteen awards plus a plaque from Decca Records in honor of her 22 million dollars in record sales. Still in her future were the extraordinary years with Verve.


Ella went on to even greater acclaim. She won thirteen Grammys — the most for any jazz singer — and had one of the longest recording careers in history. Among her few rivals were Frank Sinatra and bandleader Benny Carter. She placed first in the critics' and readers' popularity polls of music magazines more often than any other singer. She even won a Grammy for a recording in 1990, when she was seventy-two years old, and her voice quavered, her vibrato quaked, her intonation wobbled uncertainly, and her once peerless sense of time wavered. She won in part because her name was still magical for the judges; no other female jazz singer had ever achieved her international fame. Most pop and jazz singers always say the greatest influences in their lives have been Ella and Louis Armstrong. Even Billie Holiday usually ranks after them.


The people who compile encyclopedias of the most important women and African-American women always select for inclusion Ella, and only Ella, among all the great jazz singers. In 1991 she ranked among the most notable African-American women in a book of that name. In 1993, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia featured her as the "First Lady of Jazz." In the section called "The Visual Arts" in the book Women of Achievement: Thirty-five Centuries of History, Ella shows up in the niche between the legendary, inspirational Italian actress Eleonora Duse and Britain's prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. If it is at least in part true that people are known by the company they keep, then Ella Fitzgerald achieved recognition as an uncontested immortal. In 1996 she was chosen for a profile in the December 19 magazine section of the New York Times, which saluted the great people who had died that year.


Yet less was known about her than any other jazz singer. Few celebrities in any part of the entertainment world had more misinformation written about their private lives than Ella Fitzgerald. Perhaps only Thelonious Monk among all the jazz stars seemed as cloaked in mystery as Ella.


In the early years of her career, with her successful 1938 recording of "A Tisket, A Tasket" (three years after her first recording, "Love and Kisses," with bandleader Chick Webb), jazz criticism was a young art. Reporters assigned to write about her tended to poke fun at her and portray her as lacking in intellect. She was overweight, homely, girlishly ebullient, and Negro — all attributes that tended to make her fair game in those days for a writer looking for a way to write a flashily entertaining story. Nobody probed to find out anything definitive or accurate about the childhood struggles of the young woman. Nobody realized that her hardships had forged her character as a loner and thoroughly committed musician in a brilliant and original American art form. Nobody seemed to realize that as a singer she was a genius, and certainly nobody predicted she would develop into a virtual flag of American popular music. Even critic and contributor to Metronome magazine George T. Simon, who recognized her as a talented singer and wrote an item about Ella when he first heard her with Chick Webb's band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the 1930s, said he could never have foretold how great she would become.


Undoubtedly her feelings were hurt by the slights of the 1930s and early 1940s, when reporters depicted her as simple and childlike. They had no idea she had spent some no-doubt terrifying days as a street urchin and that her first marriage and her early romances (and some of her later affairs, too, according to rumor) were with slick hustlers. Her second marriage, to bassist Ray Brown, would last little more than five years, ending in divorce in August 1953; but that alliance was a casualty of their careers and does not reflect on their fine characters.


In 1949, Ebony magazine featured her as a star to be reckoned with. Little, however, was written about her private life. Her family history remained shadowy, for Ella divulged little, and what she did reveal, she tinkered with to make the facts more palatable to herself. Her manager, Norman Granz, and his staff, colleagues, and friends tended to shield Ella from interviews. Leonard Feather, whose career as an eminent jazz critic developed as Ella matured into a legendary singer, became her friend; to the degree that any writer established an intimate relationship with her, he was one of the few writers granted the opportunity to write about her with information gleaned in personal interviews. Even Edward R. Murrow, visiting Ella in her home in Los Angeles for his popular CBS show "Person to Person," discovered very little about her life behind the scenes. She had a niece and nephew with her on that show, but their names were not revealed, and neither was the identity of their mother, Ella's half sister, Frances, with whom, until Frances's death in the 1960s, Ella remained close and enjoyed, in the words of Stuart Nicholson, "one of the few enduring relationships" of her life.

Neither Ella nor Norman Granz ever published her memoirs or biography. They seemed to shy away from the very idea of a book or even articles about her life, although Ella once said she had thought about a book. But one day when a writer happened by chance to get Ella on the telephone at her house, she said in a shrill voice, "Call the office," and hung up fast.
When Ella was old and ill, a few tentatively probing articles and book-
length biographies were written about her — without her cooperation. For most of her life, the best information came from a handful of critics who knew her fairly well or from musicians who observed her closely when they traveled with her.


Another reason for the lack of books about Ella was that her life lacked controversy, or anyway publicized controversy. It was actually a rather dull life compared with the lives, times, and antics of such stars as Frank Sinatra or Sarah Vaughan or Miles Davis or Rosemary Clooney. Ella never hit a photographer — well, not hard anyway, and not until her later years. And she never had a true nervous breakdown, although she did begin suffering from exhaustion in middle age, when she sometimes sang different concerts in two different cities on the same day. American publishers gauged correctly that the public would never make a run on the bookstores to buy the story of Ella Fitzgerald's life.


Not until Stuart Nicholson published his Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz in 1994 — the first major biography of Ella — did some of the folklore swaddling and obfuscating the facts of Ella's life begin to evaporate. Nicholson included so much documented factual material about her childhood, plus a wonderful discography by jazz historian Phil Schaap, that the book currently stands as the most authoritative biography about her. Nicholson's book is, for the most part, used as a criterion for accuracy, and virtually everything written about Ella before it appeared must be revised.


Ella told columnist Earl Wilson that she had been in the second year of high school — not A.W.O.L. from an orphanage — at the time that bandleader Chick Webb hired her, and Wilson let her claim go at that. About sixty-five years later, Nicholson's biography would reveal that she had been such a truant in high school that the authorities had plucked her out of her aunt's apartment in Harlem and sent her to an orphanage, from which she was indeed A.W.O.L. when she met Chick Webb. She was living by her wits, running numbers, dancing and singing for pennies in the streets of Harlem, wearing rags and men's shoes, and avoiding going back to her aunt's house because she was afraid the authorities might find her and ship her back to the hated "orphanage." And it becomes clear that so much misinformation dogged Ella's footsteps throughout her career because she purposely avoided telling people what really had happened. Perhaps she instinctively understood the old maxim popularized by the legendary African-American baseball player Satchell Paige: "Don't look back, your past may be gaining on you."


She continued to work into her seventies, even though she couldn't see
or walk very well, being beset by myriad illnesses. Some people thought she was a pitiful sight, hobbling onto stages, but the majority viewed her as an American heroine. Why did she keep going? As Jimmy Rowles, a pianist and accompanist who worked with her regularly for a while, told me, "I don't know what she would do without music. When she walks down the street, she trails notes." Rowles also recalled amusing tales about the way she concentrated on her repertoire and found new songs to sing wherever she went, even when she was traveling on airplanes. She always kept her road manager, Pete Cavallo, hopping to find sheet music.


Now that Ella has died, and because she was so close-mouthed, it seems unlikely that some details will ever come to light. But it's possible to speculate that Ella sang, with such joyousness in her sound and style, in part because, by singing, she could tame the memories of her early hardships and keep them at bay. The attitude she took in her singing made her a whole person and enriched the rest of us.


Murray Kempton aptly provides the keynote for this book. His writing reflects the reverence that Americans felt for Ella. The much-esteemed journalist and interpreter and commentator on American politics and culture, Kempton had been assigned to Rome, where he had been disturbed by encounters with some American tourists and by their peculiar values and lack of appreciation — or perhaps simply their innocence — of art and culture. Ella Fitzgerald saved the day for him. And so he wrote about her in "The Americans" in the New York Post on June 25, 1959:

. . . And yet there is an America to which I shall come home and I am grateful for the hope and memory of it to Ella Fitzgerald. She was here this spring . . .


She sang the cruel and demanding bop songs, and those survivals of the '20s, the most sophisticated work in the book, which she has made her special province. And then, unconscious of trying something more, absolutely unaffected, she put her hands together and sang Bess's part of the "You Is My Woman Now" duet from Porgy, which before I had always thought was a man's song.


It is, of course, the song of a loser, or a chippie, who has begun to feel the wonder of possible redemption, the tender of a second chance. I could not believe then that anything Violetta sings in Traviata is any wiser and more beautiful; after two months I do not believe it yet.


The lights were of the careless sort one expects at jazz concerts. She lowered her head and barely spoke these lines, and her face between speech and silence had those harsh lights on it; and there was a sudden
alteration of all ideas of a peace and beauty. That is the face of America. Grant Wood is already only quaint—a withered newspaper photograph— because he never saw that face. If we had a blessed Angelico, that is the face from which he would have worked. She was a child from the colored schools of Newport News when Chick Webb took her on to sing swing songs; she has no education except what she got there, as cruel a school as Palermo; she has never had a coach except her own interior.


Most of the literature about Ella Fitzgerald consists of reviews and previews of her performances. This book reprints a portion of those pieces and also includes those rarer pieces that address Ella's personal life and views. Sometimes the "facts" about her early life vary from piece to piece. It is my hope that this collection of articles in which she talked freely to her interviewers face-to-face will bring Ella vividly to life for the reader.


[Although I doubt that it was available to Leslie’s book due to the timing of its writing, I would also recommend to you that no overview of the literature on Ella Fitzgerald would be complete without the inclusion of Gene Lees’ “The Sweetest Voice in the World: Ella Fitzgerald “ which appears in his compilation - there’s that word again - entitled The Singers and The Song.


Should you find yourself with some spare time on your hands during the 100th anniversary of the year of the birth Ella Fitzgerald, you couldn’t do better than spending some of it by listening to Ella’s Songbooks [most of which are available on YouTube] and reviewing the wonderful selections about her life and music lovingly as compiled by Leslie Gourse in her wonderful tribute to “The First Lady of Song” - The Ella Fitzgerald Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary.