The 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday is coming up in a few days, on April 25th. I can’t imagine music without her, she’s firmly ensconced in my musical library. But what I do remember is the difficulty I had in finding out who she actually was!
Go back to my childhood, growing up in a small town in New Mexico. My family, while musical, was not a strictly jazz family. And like many folks my age, I am able to remember AM radio and the randomness of music programming before it became so highly specific for sales marketing.
Riding around in the car I’d hear a mix of different styles. It was common to have a lineup of the Beatles, Loretta Lynn, and then Nat King Cole. I mean, something for everyone, right? So, every once in awhile during one of the rotations, I’d hear this voice that immediately caught my ear. It was clear with no bells and whistles. Just pure singing with a gorgeous tone. And try as I might, I always managed to miss the name of the singer.
Fast forward to college. Yes, it took me that long, I’m ashamed to say.
In college, smooth jazz was becoming the thing. FM radio was fully in charge of the music and smooth jazz stations popped up all over the country. I loved it, and still do. But as you can imagine, they weren’t playing Ella. I had to take a jazz appreciation class before I knew her name.
One summer, in between doses of David Sanborn and George Benson, I spent my mornings in a jazz appreciation class being introduced to swing, bebop, and cool jazz. The instructor played examples of the styles, mostly instrumental. But then he put on Ella and used her to illustrate what scatting was, to have us listen to her ability to swing her voice.
I had finally found the name to the voice.
I can’t necessarily say that all of my favorite jazz musicians came into my world in such a memorable way. But I would say, there are a bunch of jazz fans that had an Ella Moment when they first discovered her. It just took me a dozen years to know her name…
It’s easy to think she was this jazz heavy weight with amazing control of her instrument. That’s all true. But she was also singing during a time where jazz was also popular music. “Tisket-A-Tasket,” anyone? She was a pop singer too.
Ella won a talent show at the Apollo Theater, and saxophonist, Benny Carter, happened to be in the house that night. He introduced her to Chick Webb and from there she sang with Chick’s band, leading the band after his death until she left in the early forties to focus on a solo career.
During the forties, she toured with Dizzy Gillespie and honed her bebop skills. She said she tried to replicate the sound of the horn section. She succeeded.
From the articles I’ve read, she grew tired of the gimmicky records like “Tisket-A-Tasket,” but wasn’t sure where to go until she teamed with producer Norman Granz.
Norman Granz is the producer we have to thank for all of Ella’s Songbook Albums. He worked with her to record albums of specific songwriters like Cole Porter, The Gershwins, Harold Arlen. Those albums are the ones that have kept Ella in the playlists of jazz lovers like me.
So in honor of her 100th birthday, here are a few of my favorite Ella recordings for you to enjoy. Happy Birthday, Ella!
“Tea for Two” with Count Basie and his Orchestra.
It’s Ella and Basie. You can’t get much better than that.
“Body and Soul”
Ella with arrangements by Nelson Riddle. This recording is simply beautiful.
“Oh, Lady Be Good.”
A Duke Ellington tune recorded during the Norman Granz sessions.
“I’m Old Fashioned”
Written by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The easy laid back swing of this recording keeps it on my list. Plus, Mercer is my hands-down favorite lyricist.
Just a few songs to keep you going. Check back later and I’ll have a Spotify playlist ready to go with some great recordings.
Thanks for stopping by!