On June 12, 1935 Ella Fitzgerald made her first recordings with Chick Webb's powerful big band, beginning with "I'll Chase the Blues Away." It was a suggestive choice to launch one of the most illustrious careers in American music. She spent a career chasing the blues away. (In fact, one of her least attractive albums is the misconceived These are the Blues from 1963.) She would become known for her ability to infuse joy into the most trivial lyrics, to sound uplifting where Billie Holiday would be dramatic and intense. Holiday said she was influenced by Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Fitzgerald spoke of Armstrong as well, but among women she looked to the lively upbeat work of Connee Boswell and the Boswell Sisters, three white women from New Orleans who were recording in the early thirties.
Fitzgerald had a distinctive voice: flexible, shaded, bright but with a gritty edge. She brought to jazz singing the glowing bounce of her rhythm and the infectious good cheer of a voice that sounded buoyantly girlish in its natural range. Above that range she strained, but her agility and perfect pitch made the strain as expressive as a saxophonist's growl. She managed to sound endearing even when reaching for a low note, as in her version of "This Time the Dream's On Me" from the Johnny Mercer Songbook of 1964. With her ability to improvise, her uncanny swing, "rhythm and romance", as one of her early recordings has it, have been the staples of her career. But on "My Last Affair" from November 1936, recorded with members of the Chick Webb band, she sounds unaffected by the supposed tragedy that she is narrating. She uses blues inflections as a device, which doesn't interfere with the general impression of a singer at odds with her material. That may be why her biggest hits with Webb were tunes like the light-hearted novelty "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," from 1938. Still a teenager, she sounds more comfortable with a song about a lost basket than with one about a lost lover. What is particularly remarkable about this performance is her blithely swinging approach to the last choruses, in which she trades phrases with the band, improvising with the ingratiating assurance of an old pro.
When Chick Webb died the next year, Ella began fronting the band, which
foundered in the middle of the war. Fitzgerald found the rhythms of bebop
uplifting. She started to scat, to improvise wordlessly, using her own invented
language of nonsense syllables. One can hear the beginning of this develop
in numbers she made during the war, such as the remarkably
poised "Cow Cow Boogie," a country-western boogie-woogie number she recorded in 1943 with the lnk Spots, a popular black vocal group. In her most cheerful manner, Fitzgerald scats briefly. She sounds like she's singing to herself, behind the recitation of Orville "Hoppy" Jones. Bebop brought scatting to the fore. Fitzgerald internalised some of the harmonic intricacies of bop and thrilled in its rhythms, as can be heard in her December 1947 "How High the Moon," recorded with the band she co-led with bassist Ray Brown. With its logical changes, based on the circle of fifths, "How High the Moon" became the foundation of hundreds of bop performances. Fitzgerald sings the first chorus almost straight, she can't resist one baroque decoration, and then begins to improvise with her own lyrics. On the third chorus, she's scatting with the accuracy and drive that distinguishes her work, singing hornlike lines that have led some critics to define jazz singing as any that sounds like a jazz instrumental. (In a sense, jazz singing does always sound instrumental. The instrument is the voice.)
On Gershwin's "Oh, Lady Be Good" from March 1947, her wit is abundant too. After the first chorus, where she sings the song basically as written but fast, she begins her scat solo with a quotation from a march. (It's the "National Emblem March" by Bagley.) The second phrase takes a little idea and makes a sequence out of it, moving down each time. The second A section of this AABA choms begins like Rossini's "William Tell Overture," then moves into more sequences and a bebop phrase ending. The bridge begins with hard riffing, and ends with the most complicated sequence of all, a three-note idea that she keeps changing harmonically. The chorus ends with a phrase that sounds like it's from "The Three Stooges".
Fitzgerald's career took off. Her style, which moved between bop and swing, meant that she could sing with almost anybody, and she improvised with the best. She had been touring with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic since 1948. In 1956, Granz signed her to his Verve label, and she is at her peak on a number of live recordings made over the next ten years, including a hair-raising uptempo "Oh, Lady Be Good" from Los Angeles (not Chicago, as sometimes listed) in 1957. She also began a celebrated series of recordings, the so-called "Songbooks," each dedicated to a single composer or lyricist. On these recordings, Fitzgerald proves herself a storyteller, beginning "Oh, Lady Be Good" this time with the rarely heard verse that tells a "tale of woe." On the Gershwin Songbook (1959), Fitzgerald sings this song convincingly as a ballad, her gentle plea for pity in the bridge is even touching. She infuses new life into "Over the Rainbow" and introduces to jazz fans, many less well known classics of American song. She's mostly respectful of the lyrics and melodies, but on the Duke Ellington SongBook (1957), where she was accompanied at times by the Ellington orchestra, she was able to let loose. She scats through "Rockin' in Rhythm" with the bubbling, joyous sound of her best live perfomances. The songbooks feature large orchestras, but occasionally Fitzgerald sang in more intimate contexts. For the soundtrack of a now obscure movie, Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960), she sang beautifully, accompanied only by pianist Paul Smith. She treats songs such as the blues "Black Coffee", even "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", as late-night meditations. Then there's the beautifully contained "In My Solitude" from the Duke Ellington Song Book in which she's accompanied only by guitarist Barney Kessel.
She must have liked that sound and feeling. Some of her best recordings of the seventies were made with guitarist Joe Pass for Pablo Records. These include the 1973 "You're Blase" and the 1976 remake of "Solitude." But there were signs of trouble even on these recordings: the slight wobble in her vibrato in the verse of "You're Blase." In the eighties, plagued by ill health, Fitzgerald lost most of the bloom of her voice, but yet she could still improvise with aplomb.
Compton's - A Jazz History is referenced.
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