Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ella at 100 by Will Friedwald

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

The following appeared in the April 24, 2017 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

“In 1958, Frank Sinatra recorded Billy Strayhorn’s classic torch song “Lush Life”—or, rather, he attempted to. He got about halfway through it when he, in 21st-century speak, “pivoted” and decided, he declared loudly, to “put that one aside for about a year!” Upon hearing the incomplete take, one can only concur with the Chairman’s decision: This is far from a lost Sinatra masterpiece. Rather, it’s a lost Sinatra mistake.

Conversely, Ella Fitzgerald made three important recordings of “Lush Life” in three very different contexts: in 1957 with pianist Oscar Peterson, in 1973 with guitarist Joe Pass, and on a 1968 TV special with Duke Ellington —Strayhorn’s mentor and key collaborator—accompanying her on piano. Or was he? Careful analysis of the videotape by professional pianists reveals that even though it’s Duke on camera, the soundtrack accompaniment is probably actually being played by her regular accompanist at the time, Jimmy Jones.

Clearly, neither Sinatra nor Ellington was comfortable with “Lush Life”—even though Sinatra had sung many songs that were just as musically difficult (and intimately personal), and Ellington was closer to Strayhorn than anyone; he, of all people, should have been willing and able to play it.

And yet Ella Fitzgerald, whose centennial is being celebrated on the 25th of this month, boldly went where both Sinatra and Ellington feared to tread. Most performers are limited to various kinds of songs, and for the great ones that range is often very vast. We hear about a “Sinatra kind of song,” or a “ Judy Garland kind of song.” But you’ve never heard anyone speak of an “Ella Fitzgerald kind of song,” because there’s no such thing. She could and did sing everything.

In 1967-68, Fitzgerald made two of the most misguided albums of her career, “Brighten the Corner” and “Misty Blue,” which can be viewed as ill-advised attempts by the first lady of song to capture the markets of, respectfully, Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles. The first has her doing traditional spirituals like “The Old Rugged Cross”; the second consists of country-and-western songs with lyrics like “this gun don’t care who it shoots.” Clearly, neither one is a Fitzgerald classic, but both are great in their own way—I don’t listen to them as often as I do “Ella in Berlin” or “Lullabies of Birdland,” but when I do play them I find that, to quote another C&W classic, I can’t stop loving them.

When Fitzgerald died in 1996, I was given the task of calling up her friends and musical associates for statements, and when I talked to one of her ex-husbands, bass virtuoso Ray Brown, to my surprise he quoted Bing Crosby’s famous line, “Man, woman, or child, Ella is the most!” I didn’t realize how appropriate that reference was at the time: In the 1930s, Crosby served as pop culture’s ultimate musical everyman, who sang it all—from “Pennies From Heaven” to “Rock of Ages” to “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and everything in between. His successor, the singer who picked up that torch in the postwar era and carried it to the furthest extremes, was Fitzgerald. Producer-manager Norman Granz knew what he was doing when he selected her as the one singer to do the major series of songbook albums by every major American songwriter, and then to do whole albums of scat singing, blues, bossa novas, show tunes—casting a wider net than even such remarkable contemporaries as Sinatra and Charles, and singing it all magnificently.

Her performances of “Lush Life” are notable for other reasons: Fitzgerald is widely celebrated for her swinging and improvisation, but not enough attention is paid to her formidable abilities as a ballad singer. As Fitzgerald’s contemporary, Jo Stafford, pointed out to me, the first lady was concerned most of all with the melody, but she also was a major interpreter of lyrics. Some performances are more emotional than others, but she was especially forthcoming on her live concert albums and tapes of the 1960s. As numbers like “A House Is Not a Home” (from a 1969 performance in Montreux, Switzerland) prove, Fitzgerald could break your heart with a song any time she wanted to. It’s no surprise that when Matt Dennis wrote his saloon-song masterpiece “Angel Eyes,” the first person he brought it to was Fitzgerald.

What’s especially remarkable is that Fitzgerald first captured our attention with nursery rhymes, beginning with her breakthrough “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” From there she gradually expanded her purview to the point where she played a crucial role, no less than Sinatra, in helping to define the Great American Songbook, and made herself the gold standard of American popular music. Long before her centennial, it was clear that the contribution of Ella Fitzgerald to the world’s cultural legacy is so vast as to be incalculable.”

—Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.

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