© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"I never knew how good our songs were," Ira Gershwin once said to George T. Simon, "until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."
“And then there is Ella, about whom critics have surprisingly little to say, …. Her situation is not unlike that of Art Tatum — there's no way to ignore the technical and musical genius of these two, or their immense and joyous fecundity, even if you prefer your art less Olympian.”
- Henry Pleasants, The Great American Popular Singers
“She's tops! I just love her. She's Mama!”
- Jon Hendricks, Jazz vocalist
If you’ve ever wondered what made Ella Fitzgerald’s singing so singularly outstanding, you will wonder no longer after reading these excerpts about her style from Henry Pleasants, The Great American Popular Singers (1974).
“Gerald Moore, the English accompanist, tells about the time Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, following a matinee recital Moore and the German Lieder singer had given together in Washington, D.C., rushed to the National Airport and took the first plane to New York in order to hear Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald at Carnegie Hall.
"Ella and the Duke together!" Fischer-Dieskau exclaimed to Moore. "One just doesn't know when there might be a chance to hear that again!"
The story is illustrative of the unique position that both Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington occupy in the musical history of our century. More than any other artists working in the Afro-American idiom, they have caught the attention and excited the admiration of that other world of European classical, or serious, music.
Ella's achievement, in purely musical terms, is the more remarkable of the two, if only because she has never ventured into the no-man's-land of semi-classical or third-stream music separating the two idioms. Duke Ellington is a familiar figure on the stage at symphony concerts, as both pianist and composer, in his jazz-flavored symphonic suites. Ella has ranged widely between the ill-defined areas known as "jazz" and "popular," but not into classical, although she has sung the songs of the great American songwriters—Arlen, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, for example—with symphony orchestras. Many classical singers, however, like Fischer-Dieskau, are among her most appreciative admirers.
Unchallenged preeminence in her own field has had something to do with it, along with consistent performance throughout a career that has already extended over nearly forty years. Although she has never been, in her private life, a maker of headlines, her honors have been so many that word of them has filtered through to many who never saw a copy of Billboard or Down Beat and never will.
To enumerate those honors would be tedious. Suffice it to say, citing the entry under her name in Leonard Feather's New Encyclopedia of Jazz, that, between 1953 and 1960 alone, she was placed first in Metronome, Down Beat, and Playboy polls in either the "jazz singer" or "popular singer" categories, or both, no fewer than twenty-four times. She had been a poll winner long before that — she won the Esquire Gold Award in 1946 — and she is heading the polls in both categories to this day.
With Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, she shares the distinction of having achieved a nearly universal popularity and esteem without sacrificing those aspects of her vocal and musical art that so endear her to fellow professionals and to the most fastidious of critics and lay listeners. Not even Frank and Peggy are admired so unanimously. The refinements of their art often fall on unappreciative or hostile ears. But with Ella, the exclamation "She's the greatest!" runs like a refrain through everything one reads or hears about her. One is as likely to hear it from an opera singer as from Bing Crosby ("Man, woman and child, Ella Fitzgerald is the greatest!").
Of what does her greatness consist? What does she have that other excellent singers do not have? The virtues are both obvious and conspicuous, and there is general agreement about them. She has a lovely voice, one of the warmest and most radiant in its natural range that I have heard in a lifetime of listening to singers in every category. She has an impeccable and ultimately sophisticated rhythmic sense, and flawless intonation. Her harmonic sensibility is extraordinary. She is endlessly inventive. Her melodic deviations and embellishments are as varied as they are invariably appropriate. And she is versatile, moving easily from up-tempo scatting on such songs as "Flying Home," "How High the Moon?" and "Lady Be Good" to the simplest ballad gently intoned over a cushion of strings.
One could attribute any one, or even several, of these talents and attainments to other singers. Ella has them all. She has them in greater degree. She knows better than any other singer how to use them. What distinguishes her most decisively from her singing contemporaries, however, is less tangible. It has to do with style and taste. Listening to her — and I have heard her in person more often than any other singer under discussion in these pages—I sometimes find myself thinking that it is not so much what she does, or even the way she does it, as what she does not do. What she does not do, putting it as simply as possible, is anything wrong. There is simply nothing in her performance to which one would want to take exception. What she sings has that suggestion of inevitability that is always a hallmark of great art. Everything seems to be just right. One would not want it any other way. Nor can one, for the moment, imagine it any other way.
For all the recognition and adulation that has come her way, however, Ella Fitzgerald remains, I think, an imperfectly understood singer, especially as concerns her vocalism. The general assumption seems to be that it is perfect. That she has sung in public for so many years—and still, when on tour, may do two sixty-minute sets six or seven nights a week—with so little evidence of vocal wear and tear would seem to support that assumption. Her vocalism is, in fact, as I hear it, less than perfect. "Ingenious" and "resourceful" would be more appropriate adjectives.
She has, as many great singers in every category have had, limitations of both endowment and technique. But, also like other great singers, she has devised ways of her own to disguise them, to get around them, or even to turn them into apparent assets. Ella's vocal problems have been concentrated in that area of the range already identified in the case of earlier singers as the "passage." She has never solved them. She has survived them and surmounted them.
She commands, in public performance and on record, an extraordinary range of two octaves and a sixth, from the low D or D-flat to the high B-flat and possibly higher. This is a greater range, especially at the bottom, than is required or expected of most opera singers. But there is a catch to it. Opera singers, as they approach the "passage," depress the larynx and open the throat — somewhat as in yawning — and, focusing the tone in the head, soar on upward. The best of them master the knack of preserving, as they enter the upper register, the natural color and timbre of the normal middle register, bringing to the upper notes a far greater weight of voice than Ella Fitzgerald does. Even the floated pianissimo head tones of, say, a Montserrat Caballe should not be confused with the tones that Ella produces at the upper extremes of her range.
Ella does not depress the larynx, or "cover," as she reaches the "passage." She either eases off, conceding in weight of breath and muscular control what a recalcitrant vocal apparatus will not accommodate, or she brazens through it, accepting the all too evident muscular strain. From this she is released as she emerged upward into a free-floating falsetto. She does not, in other words, so much pass from one register into another as from one voice into another. As Roberta Flack has noted perceptively: "Ella doesn't shift gears. She goes from lower to higher register, the same all the way through."
The strain audible when Ella is singing in the "passage" contributes to a sense of extraordinary altitude when she continues upward. In this she reminds me of some opera tenors who appear to be in trouble — and often are — in their "passage" (at about F, F-sharp, and G) and achieve the greater impression of physical conquest when they go on up to an easy, sovereign B-flat. The listener experiences anxiety, tension, suspense, relief, and amazement. It is not good singing by the canons of bel canto, which reckon any evidence of strain deplorable. But it is exciting, and in the performance of a dramatic or athletic aria, effective.
Both this sense of strain in that critical area of Ella's voice, and the striking contrast of the free sound above the "passage" may help to explain why so many accounts of her singing refer to notes "incredibly high." Sometimes they are. The high A-flat, A, and B-flat, even in falsetto, must be regarded as exceptional in a singer who also descends to the low D. But more often than not they sound higher than they are. Time and again, while checking out Ella's range on records, 1 have heard what 1 took to be a high G or A-flat, only to go to the piano and find that it was no higher than an E or an F. What is so deceptive about her voice above the "passage" is that the sound is high, with a thin, girlish quality conspicuously different from the rich, viola-like splendor of her middle range. It is not so much the contrast with the pitches that have gone before as the contrast with the sound that has gone before.
In purely vocal-technical terms, then, what distinguishes Ella from her operatic sisters is her use of falsetto; what distinguishes her from most of her popular-singer sisters is her mastery of it. One may hear examples of its undisciplined use in public performance and on records today in the singing of many women, especially in the folk-music field. With most of them the tone tends to become thin, tenuous, quavery, and erratic in intonation as they venture beyond their natural range. They have not mastered falsetto. Ella has. So has Sarah Vaughan. So has Ella and Sarah's admirable virtuoso English counterpart, Cleo Laine.
The "girlish" sound of the female falsetto may offer a clue to its cultivation by Ella Fitzgerald, and to some fundamental characteristics of her vocal art. It is, for her, a compatible sound, happily attuned to her nature and to the circumstances of her career. She entered professional life while still a girl. Her first hit record, "A-Tisket A-Tasket," was the song of a little girl who had lost her yellow basket. The girl of the song must have been a congenial object of identification for a young singer, born in Newport News, Virginia, who spent her childhood first in an orphanage, later with an aunt in Yonkers, New York, who drifted as a young dancer into Harlem clubs, and who fell into a singing career in an amateur contest at the Harlem Opera House when she was too scared to dance.
"It was a dare from some girlfriends," she recalls today. "They bet me I wouldn't go on. I got up there and got cold feet. I was going to dance. The man said since I was up there I had better do something. So I tried to sing like Connee Boswell — 'The Object of My Affection.'"
According to all the jazz lexicons, Ella was born on April 25, 1918, and entered that Harlem Opera House competition, which she won, in 1934, when she would have been sixteen. She became vocalist with the Chick Webb band the following year, was adopted by the Webb family and, following Chick's death in 1939, carried on as leader of the band until 1942. She would then have been all of twenty-four, with ten years of professional experience behind her.
According to Norman Granz, who has been her manager throughout the greater part of her career, she was younger than that. Granz says that she was born in 1920 and had to represent herself as older, when she first turned up in Harlem, to evade the child-labor laws. She was adopted by the Webbs because a parental consent was a legal prerequisite for employment.
It should hardly be surprising, then, that her voice, when she began with the Chick Webb band, and as it can be heard now on her early records, was that of a little girl. She was only fourteen. She was a precocious little girl, to be sure, and probably matured early, as other black entertainers did—Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday, for example—who grew up in the tough clubs and dance halls of Harlem while other girls were still in secondary school. What mattered with Ella, however, and affected her subsequent career, was that the little girl could also sound like a young woman — and was irresistible.
The sound worked, and so did the little girl. Ella has never entirely discarded either the girl or the sound. She was, and has remained, a shy, retiring, rather insecure person. To this day when, as a woman of matronly appearance and generous proportions, she addresses an audience, it is always in a tone of voice, and with a manner of speech, suggesting the delighted surprise, and the humility, too, of a child performer whose efforts have been applauded beyond her reasonable expectations.
Nor has Ella ever forsaken her roots in jazz. George T. Simon, in The Big Bands, remembers watching her at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem when she was with Chick Webb:
“When she wasn't singing, she would usually stand at the side of the band, and, as the various sections blew their ensemble phrases, she'd be up there singing along with all of them, often gesturing with her hands as though she were leading the band.”
The fruits of such early enthusiasm and practice may be heard today in Ella's appearances with the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, when one or more instrumental soloists step forward to join her in a round of "taking fours," with Ella's voice assuming the character and color of a variety of instruments as she plunges exuberantly into chorus after chorus of syllabic improvisation (scatting).
Ella owes at least some of her virtuosity in this type of display, or at least the opportunity to develop and exploit it, to Norman Granz and her many years' association with his Jazz at the Philharmonic tours. Benny Green, the English jazz critic, thus describes the importance of this association to the shaping of Ella Fitzgerald's art and career:
“When Ella first began appearing as a vocal guest on what were, after all, the primarily instrumental jazz recitals of Norman Granz, it might have seemed at the time like imaginative commercial programming and nothing more. In fact, as time was to prove, it turned out to be the most memorable manager-artist partnership of the post-war years, one which quite dramatically changed the shape and direction of Ella's career. Granz used Ella, not as a vocal cherry stuck on top of an iced cake of jazz, but as an artist integrated thoroughly into the jam session context of the performance. When given a jazz background, Ella was able to exhibit much more freely her gifts as an instrumental-type improvisor.”
Elsewhere, reviewing an appearance by Ella with the Basic band in London in 1971, Green has described as vividly and succinctly as possible the phenomenon of Ella working in an instrumental jazz context:
“The effect on Ella is to galvanize her into activity so violent that the more subtle nuances of the song readings are swept away in a riot of vocal improvisation which, because it casts lyrics to the winds, is the diametric opposite of her other, lullaby, self. And while it is true that for a singer to mistake herself for a trumpet is a disastrous course of action, it has to be admitted that Ella's way with a chord sequence, her ability to coin her own melodic phrases, her sense of time, the speed with which her ear perceives harmonic changes, turn her Basie concerts into tightrope exhibitions of the most dazzling kind.”
It was her activity with Jazz at the Philharmonic that exposed and exploited the singular duality of Ella Fitzgerald's musical personality. Between 1942, when her career as a bandleader came to an end, and 1946, when she joined Granz, she had marked time, so to speak, as an admired but hardly sensational singer of popular songs. With Jazz at the Philharmonic, she was back with jazz.
The timing was right. Bop had arrived, and Ella was with it, incorporating into her vocal improvisations the adventurous harmonic deviations and melodic flights of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Indeed, according to Barry Ulanov, in his A History of Jazz in America, the very term "bop," or "bebop," can be traced to Ella's interpolation of a syllabic invention, "rebop," at the close of her recording of " 'T'ain't What You Do, It's the Way That You Do It" in 1939.
She has cultivated and treasured this duality ever since, and wisely so. Singers who have adhered more or less exclusively to an instrumental style of singing, using the voice, as jazz terminology has it, "like a horn," have won the admiration and homage of jazz musicians and jazz critics, but they have failed to win the enduring and financially rewarding affections of a wider public. Others have stuck to ballads and won the public but failed to achieve the artistic prestige associated with recognition as a jazz singer. Ella, more than any other singer, has had it both ways.
Norman Granz, again, has had a lot to do with it. When Ella's recording contract with Decca expired in 1955, she signed with Granz's Verve label and inaugurated, in that same year, a series of Song Book albums, each devoted to a single songwriter, that took her over a span of twelve years through an enormous repertoire of fine songs, some of them unfamiliar, by Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers.
These were the first albums to give star billing to individual songwriters, and they served the double purpose of acknowledging and demonstrating the genius of American composers while providing Ella with popular material worthy of her vocal art. "I never knew how good our songs were," Ira Gershwin once said to George T. Simon, "until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."
As a jazz singer Ella has been pretty much in a class by herself, and that in a period rejoicing in many excellent ones, notably Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Anita O'Day, Jo Stafford, Kay Starr, and Sarah Vaughan, not to overlook, in England, Cleo Laine. I am using the term "jazz singer" here in the sense that jazz musicians use it, referring to a singer who works—or can work—in a jazz musician's instrumental style, improvising as a jazz musician improvises. Ella was, of course, building on the techniques first perfected, if not originated, by Louis Armstrong, tailoring and extending his devices according to the new conventions of bop.
There is a good deal of Armstrong in Ella's ballads, too, although none of his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. What she shared with Louis in a popular ballad was a certain detachment—in her case a kind of classic serenity, or, as Benny Green puts it, a "lullaby" quality—that has rendered her, in the opinion of some of us, less moving than admirable and delightful. In terms of tone quality, variety, and richness of vocal color, enunciation, phrasing, rhythm, melodic invention, and embellishment, her singing has always been immaculate and impeccable, unequaled, let alone surpassed, by any other singer. But in exposing the heart of a lyric she must take second place, in my assessment, at least, to Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Ethel Waters.
This may well be because she has never been one for exposing her own heart in public. She shares with an audience her pleasures, not her troubles. She has not been an autobiographical singer, as Billie and Frank were, nor a character - projecting actress, as Ethel Waters and Peggy Lee have been, which may be why her phrasing, despite exemplary enunciation, has always tended to be more instrumental than oral, less given to the rubato devices of singers more closely attuned to the lyrical characteristics of speech.
What she has offered her listeners has been her love of melody, her joy in singing, her delight in public performance and her accomplishments, the latter born of talent and ripened by experience, hard work, and relentless self-discipline. Like Louis, she has always seemed to be having a ball. For the listener, when she has finished, the ball is over. It has been a joyous, exhilarating, memorable, but hardly an emotional, experience.
Also, like Louis, she has addressed herself primarily to a white rather than a black public, not because she has in any sense denied her own people, but rather because, in a country where blacks make up only between ten and twenty percent of the population, white musical tastes and predilections are dominant. They must be accommodated by any black artist aspiring to national and international recognition and acceptance. In more recent years, younger whites have tended to favor a blacker music. A B. B. King has been able to achieve national celebrity where a Bessie Smith, fifty years earlier, could not. When Ella was a girl, what the white majority liked was white music enriched by the more elemental and more inventive musicality of black singers and black instrumentalists.
Ella's singing, aside from the characteristic rhythmic physical participation, the finger-popping and hip-swinging, and the obviously congenial scat-ting, has never been specifically or conspicuously black. It represents rather the happy blend of black and white which had been working its way into the conventions of American popular singing since the turn of the century, and which can be traced in the careers of Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, and Bing Crosby.
When Ella was a girl, black singers — those in organized show business, at any rate — were modeling themselves on the white singing stars of the time, and many white singers were modeling themselves on the charmingly imperfect imitation. It is significant that Ella's first model was Connee Boswell. A comparison of the records they both made in the late 1930s shows again how perceptive an ear Ella had from the first. But it is just as significant that Connee Boswell belonged to a generation of jazz-oriented white singers— others were Mildred Bailey and Lee Wiley—who had been listening to Bessie Smith and, above all, to Ethel Waters.
Again like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald has achieved that rarest of distinctions: the love and admiration of singers, instrumentalists, critics, and the great lay public. But while she may be for the jazzman a musicians' musician, and for the lay public the First Lady of Song, she has always been more than anything else a singers' singer. John Hendricks, of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross fame, has put it well, responding to an Ella Fitzgerald record on a Jazz Journal blindfold test:
Well, of course, she's my favorite — she's tops! I just love her. She's Mama! I try and sing my ballads like she does. I was working in a hotel in Chicago, and Johnny Mathis came in to hear me. I had just finished singing a new ballad I was doing at the time, and he came up to me and said, "Jon, you sure love your old Fitzgerald, don't you?"
"Yes," I replied, "and don't you, too?"
"We all do!" he said.
And that's it. Everyone who sings just loves little old Fitzgerald!”