Ella Fitzgerald’s talent was never particularly containable, and anyone unwise to its charms would do well to spend some time with a few discs from the person I’m going to say is jazz’s greatest-ever singer.
Born a hundred years ago on April 25, 1917, Fitzgerald’s vocal genius is such that she deserves a year’s worth of celebration. I’ve spent a goodly amount of the spring and early summer revisiting her work, trying to hear it with new ears, even if it’s never far from my listening ken. Her first big break came in January 1935 when she won a contest to perform with the Tiny Bradshaw band in Harlem for a week’s residency, which led to a permanent gig with drummer Chick Webb’s unit. From there it was on to a Decca solo career in the early 1940s and what might be the most influential piece of jazz singing since Louis Armstrong’s earliest sides, a scat treatment of “Flying Home.” No singer had ever gone this far beyond the strictures of a given song to craft an entirely new work born of a teaming of mind and mouth. She was also working for promoter Norman Ganz, appearing regularly at his barnstorming Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, with the live version of Ella gaining more in prowess by the gig.
Ganz became her manager and then basically launched Verve Records, built entirely around his star singer, at which point Fitzgerald, who had believed her lot in life was to sing bop, had one of the crucial breakthroughs in all of jazz, turning to the great American songbooks of writers like Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, fashioning recorded monuments to their genius that brought hers into clearer view.
I’ve been listening to Fitzgerald since college, never less than beguiled by her ability to blend power and beauty. There is more emotion, say, with Billie Holiday, at times, but not the same level of technique; Fitzgerald was a master of phrasing, more so than Armstrong, or Bob Dylan, or just about any great singer whose meatiest part of their métier is how they emphasize certain words and syllables.
Not that she stinted on the emotionalism—no singer better conveyed, with her scat vocals, what it meant to feel something the heart wished for the brain to express in bell-clear words, but just couldn’t, for the overabundance of feeling. But thankfully that voice would come swooping in, and any and all issues of communication, that direct line from singer to listener, would be resolved with the surety of Fitzgerald’s voice.
Over the years, I’ve come to hear various Fitzgerald albums differently than I had before. I think our finest artists are those whose works bend to the contours of your own life and experiences, providing fresh revelations when you need them most, or when you’re better equipped to process them. There was a time I thought of her Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas album as slight holiday fare, which is easy enough to do at the outset. Many jazz singers, of course, went on autopilot and cut a holiday album or five. But as aspects of my life changed and Christmas became a harder holiday—on account of that catchall we all call “life stuff”—I began to experience a warmth in her treatments of “Jingle Bells” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” that made for tracks in snowy conditions that crisscrossed the grounds of my holiday blues, pointing towards future holidays that could be better—that, by Jove, really might be better.
I love the songbook albums, and you can put them up there, artistically, with any jazz ever cut, but nothing from Ella pleases me more than live Ella recordings. It is impossible to falter in making a selection with the LPs documenting her in-concert self. Twelve Nights in Hollywood cherry-picks from a week and a half of club dates from Tinsel Town in 1961 and is as smooth as a becalmed sea in a tide-free world. Ella Fitzgerald Live at Mister Kelly’s is earthier, a Chicago Club date from 1958 that has rhythm and blues overtones. But for me, there is no surpassing the album I have chosen to make my album of the year in this year of Ella Fitzgerald, that being Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife.
Fitzgerald was ideal for both the grittier jazz clubs and the European concert stage, not something we can say about many singers. She always channeled the blues and bop—bop owing so much to the blues, only sped up to metronome-busting degrees—but with a fringe of operatic stylings. Not so much in technique, but in manner, poise, dignity. Chops, too.
Recorded the day before Valentine’s Day 1960, Fitzgerald is at a vocal apogee in a career that had no lows. Still, there could be a little extra extra, if you will, to her performances, and that extra-ness is coming out in spades here. Part of the considerable appeal of the gig comes from its looseness and even its errors. During her rendition of the album’s title song about that infamous German murderer who lends himself so well to American vocal jazz, Fitzgerald forgets the lyrics, requiring some quick extemporization on her part.
That gussied up an already great concert, and on the record provides the perfect mood to segue into the closer, “How High the Moon.” Fitzgerald must have spent some time with the Les Paul and Mary Ford version, with Paul’s guitar paradoxically providing more of the vocal than Ford’s vocal did, as if it were the voice of the song and Ford’s contribution part of the rhythmic backing. There was always a deeply inherent vocal line in the piece that went beyond mere words, and here, in Berlin, Fitzgerald pulls it out, dispensing with any words you would be able to find in Webster’s for the finest scat singing in jazz history post-Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Louis Armstrong.
Before we were able, as humans, to form words, we still communicated with sounds, and if you had any doubt over how articulate our predecessors could be in certain moments, with sounds alone Fitzgerald dispels them. She’s also at once a horn, a guitar, a one-person string section, plus untapped human joy, that most natural part of what makes a person fully on display without the often-censorious system of checks-and-balances we all encounter when we ask ourselves, “Is it okay to say this, or should I say that instead?”
Scat singing requires impeccable breath control, as there can be less in the way of natural pauses than we find in sentences, even in sentences meant to be sung. There can also be a tendency to rush the scat singing, not allowing for those natural caesuras that mark the end of one rhythmic phrase and allow it to bend into the next.
But these issues are non-starters with Fitzgerald, who sounds like she’s taken the whole of her amazing performance and distilled those contents into this set closer to end all set closers. But when you leave a stage with a number this powerful, can you ever really be said to have left it? Doesn’t its planking stretch far past the wings, into memories and minds and anecdotes and, if we are lucky, recordings such as this, in a career such as Fitzgerald’s? The stage as wood-slatted path that never leaves off, always going like that scat solo you never want to end.