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.

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