Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Twelve Nights Decades Ago



For me, like for so many people my age, Ella Fitzgerald opened the door to the world of jazz. Although she is celebrated for her scat-singing, I fell in love with her more mannered vocals on the Songbook albums that she produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I adored the purity of her girlish voice, and I was knocked out by the beauty of the music and the intimacy of the lyrics.

With Ella, it was all about the singing. She was a working singer in the purest sense of the word. If you want to be schooled in how to sing jazz, just listen to her and Mel Torme endlessly. May I suggest that one of your primary texts be the newly released 4-CD set, Ella Fitzgerald: Twelve Nights in Hollywood?

Recorded in May of 1962 at a jazz club, it captures Ella at the height of her powers. Jazz singing is best experienced live: it’s thrilling to watch a singer surrender to a rhythm or a melody, and make decisions about delivery on the run. The interplay among the players is fascinating to follow. That’s one big reason why we must be eternally grateful for pianist Lou Levy’s stewardship on this set. He anchors a drummer, guitarist, and bass player. They set the rhythm in motion, and Ella sends it skyward.

The purity of this recording is astounding. You feel as if you’ve got a front table (and consequently you get quite irritated at the folks at the back of the club who chatter through the ballads). You can imagine watching Ella in the prime of her life. (She was 44, I believe, at the time. The Coke-bottle glasses were to come in the next decade along with the deep lack of security due to the ascendancy of rock-and-roll. My, but this moment was truly the calm before the storm!)

Fred Kaplan describes how the sets eventually got released in The New York Times. It's amazing to think that it took so long for this music to see the light of day!

Ella Fitzgerald was blessed with a girlish voice that never left her. It’s immensely appealing, but the woman’s got soul too. I’d never fully appreciated it until I watched an American Masters special on her called Something to Live For. It is here that you learn about her tough childhood, and her loneliness.

If you read Stuart Nicholson’s Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, you’ll understand how throughout her life Ella struggled with her weight and self-image.

She was not sexy like an Anita O’Day or Julie London. Any other component of who she was could not be visible given the racial attitudes in the world she inhabited. She was black, and that consigned her to an alternate world. I can’t recall any of her albums in my father’s collection. He didn’t really collect jazz singers. Instead he gravitated towards pop singers: Perry Como, Doris Day, and Frank Sinatra being prime examples.

I, of course, found all these people the very definition of being square. They were so out of touch with youth culture, so insincere and glitzy. No, give me the lyrical honesty of the folksingers and singer-songwriters. James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon—these people sang from the heart. My father’s favorites were frauds.

I maintained this attitude until my junior year in college. My family’s life was changing dramatically then: they were being uprooted from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Shortly afterwards we learned that my mother had cancer. Learning all of this from afar, I suppose I turned to the old songs to be reminded of my childhood home that had always rang with them.

That’s when I started with Ella Fitzgerald’s songbooks. From there Nat King Cole was a graceful next step. My father was extremely pleased with my appreciation for Frank Sinatra. It was the end of the 1970s.

The jazz and pop world began overlapping during a renaissance that began with the wholly unexpected popularity of Sinatra’s Trilogy album in 1980. (The 3-album set featured his last great hit “New York, New York.”)

Slowly but surely, the singers from a bygone era re-emerged. Mel Torme became a New York nightclub sensation, and his album Live at Marty's recorded the historical moment. Tony Bennett, who had been toiling in relative obscurity after being dropped by Columbia in the early 1970s, returned to begin a new and equally lengthy relationship with the label, thanks to the managerial acumen of his son Danny and the awareness that there was a hunger for the classic pop that predated the era of rock-and-roll. Jazz labels like Verve mined their archives and began re-releasing classic works.

I launched my independent study of Sinatra, memorizing most of his music. I also pursued jazz singers, expanding my record collection enormously with works by Bobby Short, Susannah McCorkle, Lena Horne, et al. I enjoyed making my own way, thinking bemusedly that I was truly listening to “alternative” music, considering my age.

Anyway, Ella Fitzgerald was my launching pad, and I will always love her for that fact. I’m grateful that this new release has re-ignited my admiration for her.

Click here for Ella in 1974. You'll enjoy her introduction to "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing").

Click here for an outtake from the American Masters special on Ella.

2 comments:

johnschaberg@comcast.net said...

I'm with you Jeff. My first exposure to Ella and jazz vocals was "Ella and Louie" - a great 3 album set that presents both greats in a very relaxed studio just having fun.

Anonymous said...

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