Ella Fitzgerald:
An Appreciation in Three Parts

by Paul Hofmann

Part One:

The Incomparable Ella

“When I was looking for somebody to hang my vocal hat on, she was my number one influence ... Ella was the absolute epitome of everything that I’ve ever believed in or loved as far as popular singing was concerned.”

— Mel Torme

Some thirty years ago, I first heard the incomparable vocal talents of Ella Fitzgerald featured in Pablo’s boxed set “Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic ‘72.” As a teenager newly interested in jazz, I knew next to nothing of her great contributions to this music. Listening to these records, I was enthralled with her obvious inventiveness, especially her incredible call-and-response scat singing.

Her versatility also impressed me. Here was a Grand Dame singing everything from jazz standards to James Taylor’s recent pop hit, the Carole King song You’ve Got A Friend. I realize now that her artistry, on full display throughout this album, positively affected my decision to pursue music (and jazz music in particular) as a career. Indeed, I still remember note-for-note some of her catchy improvisations over Ellington’s The C Jam Blues from this collection.

I was also fortunate to see and hear her that summer (1978) in an outdoor concert which also featured, of all people, singer Sarah Vaughan. Sassy was of course wonderful, and surely deserved her many accolades over the years, but Ella’s performance that night proved more memorable to me. To the crowd’s delight, Ella sang Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot – so appropriate, given the sweltry weather that evening.

Other musical particulars are difficult to recall, though I do remember her accompanist (perhaps Paul Smith?) being superb. What I mainly retained was her sheer, infectious joy of performing. Even at the age of sixty, a show business veteran of some forty years, she was utterly connected with her audience, consistently captivating a crowd who clearly adored her in return.

I cite these personal recollections as evidence of the immediacy and vitality of Ella’s great art, even as I later learned that her magnificent vocal instrument was perhaps somewhat past its prime by this time, the late 1970s. Of course I was unaware of this then, as I was equally oblivious to her well-earned stature as one of the twentieth century’s great vocal stylists. No matter; her impressive musicianship coupled with her wonderfully warm personality both made lasting impressions on me that night.

“Anyone who attempts to sing extemporaneously - that is, scat - will tell you that the hardest aspect is to stay in tune ... [y]ou are wandering all over the scales, the notes coming out of your mouth a millisecond after you think of them ... Her notes float out in perfect pitch, effortlessly and, most important of all, swinging.”

— Mel Torme

Still a young girl, Ella came into national prominence with Chick Webb’s Orchestra from 1934-39. In 1938 she recorded her first hit record, a novel rendition of the children’s song A-Tisket, A-Tasket. Apparently around this time, the pioneering bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie encouraged her to try some ad-libbing during a jam session (in her words: “I just tried to do what I heard the horns in the band doing”), and the rest is musical history.

Thus began a remarkable career that spanned more than fifty years (and nearly 150 albums!) and included worldwide fame and recognition: twelve Grammy awards, an honorary degree from Yale, various medals and awards, and eighteen years as winner of Downbeat’s ‘Best Female Jazz Singer’ poll. Her stature was such that Ella was one of the first black jazz artists to be featured on television.

Although I saw her with a jazz combo, Ella had also begun performing with symphony orchestras by the 1970s. Like Louis Armstrong before her (with whom she made a series of notable recordings), her appeal was remarkably broad. What’s more, Fitzgerald’s popularity proved exceptionally durable. Indeed, some thirty years after she released an LP entitled “Live in Rome,” the CD reissue became the best-selling jazz recording of 1988. Amazing!

“She made as many records as Crosby and Sinatra and they’re all beautiful. They’re all in top shape ... [s]he’s the best singer I ever heard ... absolutely.”

— Tony Bennett

Under the auspices of her longtime producer, Norman Granz, Ella recorded a series of comprehensive “song book” albums which set the standard for all such collections. More than anything else up to this time (indeed, probably more than any like-minded albums since), these projects successfully bridged the gap between the world of jazz and the world of the theater. And Fitzgerald was a risk-taker; she often recorded extraordinary versions of songs very different in style from the composers’ original intentions.

For Ella had an intuitive sense of composition. Throughout the song books, one hears many examples of her first singing a song’s ‘correct’ melody and then proceeding to create an intricate contrapuntal line of her own, thus elaborating on the original melody in wonderful fashion. This baroque sensibility was one of the more impressive aspects of her creativity, and something few (if any) singers have ever pulled off so consistently well.

My grandparents owned an original copy of the first album in the series: 1956’s 2-LP set “Ella Fitzgerald sings the Cole Porter Song Book.” As a young jazz fan, I remember being most attracted to Ella’s improvisations on this recording. Over time, I have come to appreciate how the great popular composers and lyricists (Ellington, Porter, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, et al) must have treasured hearing her interpretations of their sophisticated songs.

The two greatest collections of her song books, for which Fitzgerald deservedly won numerous awards, remain the Ellington and Gershwin sets. Both of these monumental twentieth-century musical achievements warrant full-length discussions of their own.

“[Ella has] the best ear of any singer ever ... [she’s] the greatest.”

— Bing Crosby

Part Two:

“Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook”

“[She] brings to mind the words of the maestro, Mr. Toscanini, who said concerning singers, ‘Either you’re a good musician or you’re not.’ In terms of musicianship, Ella Fitzgerald was beyond category.”

— Duke Ellington

By 1955, although Ella Fitzgerald had been a show business veteran for some twenty years, her recorded output for Decca Records (her sole label to date) was clearly unsatisfying. When producer Norman Granz signed her to Verve Records at the start of the following year, this situation quickly – and happily – changed. The great singer was now able to record material of her liking! From this time through the mid-1960s, she recorded some three dozen albums for Granz.

Of these, ten were multiple-disc projects, the two biggest being the Ellington songbook and the slightly longer Gershwin songbook [discussed separately in Part Three, below]. Ella’s song book series revolutionized the recording industry. Popular music had never before been given such lavish treatment, and rarely has since; the Beatles’ massive “Anthology,” released in stages throughout the mid-1990s, is one that comes to mind.

The then-new 12” format now allowed record producers to emphasize the unified artistic production of entire long-playing albums, and as such was an important break from the common practice of an album’s merely replicating accumulations of hit singles. This new technology afforded Fitzgerald, after the manner of Frank Sinatra’s recent “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” LP, the opportunity to release a series of lengthy ‘concept albums’ celebrating the great American songwriters. Due mainly to the sublime artistic achievements of her landmark sequence, Ella’s reputation was secured for posterity.

Recorded over the period of a year (1956-57), “Ella Fitzgerald sings the Duke Ellington song book” – encompassing some three brilliant hours of creativity – was originally released in 1958 on four LPs. Polygram’s 1988 compact disc re-release replicated the thirty-eight tune package in its entirety, including the original art design and Leonard Feather’s annotation. This was a wonderful accomplishment, yet more was destined to be heard.

The exhaustive boxed collection (sixteen CDs) of Ella’s songbooks was released in 1993. This set not only includes all the original packaging but also contains several previously unreleased gems. In the case of the Ellington material, this means our hearing a revealing rehearsal take (as well as a wonderful alternate master) of Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge. This rare treasure allows us to hear Ella, at the outset, saying “[I’ll] do my best; I can’t do no more” ... about a minute later, as she discusses some musical fine points with Strayhorn, we hear Duke admonishing his carefree band members with “Everybody knows exactly what we’re doing ... DON’T WE?” And then it’s rehearsal time.

“To bestow an excellent rating ... is really a most inadequate method of evaluation. A monumental undertaking it assuredly is. Most important though, is that it comes off an artistic success. An absolute must in any library...”

Downbeat (from the original five-star review, forty years ago)

The Ellington songbook was the third in Ella’s series; it was preceded by tributes to Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart and followed by similar homages to Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. While each collection has distinctly satisfying features of its own, particularly the Gershwin set, the Ellington album is perhaps the most unique project. This is in large measure due to the fact that Ellington and his orchestra actually accompany Fitzgerald. Duke and his legendary ensemble (in one of its most glorious versions) appear during half of the proceedings; for the balance, Ella sings with smaller all-star groups.

Unlike the other songbook composers, Ellington and his many co-writers – Billy Strayhorn chief among them – weren’t Broadway or Tin Pan Alley veterans; they composed pieces almost exclusively for Duke’s touring and recording band. Indeed, many of these songs’ lyrics were written well after their initial notes were penned, and by a wide variety of excellent wordsmiths (a dozen in this collection alone).

Rodgers had his Hart, and later his Hammerstein; Gershwin had his older brother (!); but Ellington’s primary partner was always his orchestra. The resulting collaboration between Ella and Duke is thus an authentic jazz achievement, whereas Fitzgerald’s other albums in the series featured arrangements of tunes more geared to the world of the musical theater.

Ellington and Strayhorn even co-wrote a sixteen-minute instrumental piece (sans Ella) specifically for this collection: the four-movement Portrait Of Ella Fitzgerald. As the singer and the composers had been friends and colleagues for almost twenty years, this songbook proved the perfect vehicle for such a musical appreciation. The third movement, “Beyond Category,” even takes its title from Ellington’s quote reprinted above; Duke himself – in the role of narrator, something he relished! – incorporates the entire passage in his narration.

“She has a magnificent instrument and she uses it to the best advantage.”

— Peggy Lee

Interestingly, the studio sessions themselves fell short of the producer’s expectations, primarily because Granz was miffed that the orchestra was only able to schedule playing half of the album. While part of this was due to the fact that Ellington was under contract to another label (Columbia), it also happened that of the tunes that did feature the band, Ellington’s arrangements were simply the stock arrangements his musicians performed on the road.

Classic treatments though they were, in practical terms this meant that very little material was reworked to accommodate Ella’s voice! It is remarkable, then, that her singing with the band manages to blend in so completely throughout. Her wordless scatting, effortlessly sung (and with astonishingly accurate intonation), fits the bill perfectly – especially over those tunes that had yet no lyrics.

Ella’s tremendous sense of swing serves her extremely well during the uptempo numbers, from the opening Rockin’ in Rhythm on down the line, concluding with The E and D Blues (E for Ella, D for Duke) – a masterpiece of blues improvisation. Even the exotic Caravan perhaps never sounded better or fresher.

During one of these sessions, bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie happened to be on hand as an observer; on Take The ‘A’ Train he sat in and played with the rest of the band, even taking a solo. History in the making! Of course, ballads were also specialties of Ella’s; and ballads associated with Ellington are among the most beautiful in all of jazz. Her classic version here of I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) must rank with the most poignant, most emotionally intimate that she or the orchestra ever recorded.

All the band performances are superb. Ellington himself plays some tremendous piano, at one point settling into some quirky, dissonant comping behind Clark Terry’s trumpet solo on Juan Tizol’s classic, Perdido. Even the medium-relaxed tempos (I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues; I’m Beginning To See The Light) offer textbook examples of how a swinging rhythm section – in this case, Duke or Strayhorn at the piano; Jimmy Woode, bass; Sam Woodyard, drums – can help propel a great band (and in this case, an equally great vocalist).

Ellington’s arrangements, with important contributions from Strayhorn, are typically intense, sophisticated creations – including some fascinating introductions (notably on Day Dream) and several surprising endings (‘A’ Train again) – featuring a wide tonal palette of clarinet obbligatos, piano flourishes and the like. Only Gil Evans, a tremendous admirer of Duke’s, was as able to extract such a broad spectrum of sounds from a big band. Interestingly, Evans’s classic charts for trumpeter Miles Davis, released by Columbia as “Miles Ahead,” were recorded a mere few weeks before Ella’s and Duke’s joint venture, and in the same studio!

“Duke’s music and Ella’s voice were made for each other...”

— Leonard Feather

Although Fitzgerald and Ellington worked wonderfully together, the small group recordings were as marvelous an achievement; the pared-down instrumentation allowed Ella to display vocal renditions of Duke’s music in a markedly more relaxed setting. The bulk of material from these dates consists primarily of carefree gems and gorgeous ballads, sparsely arranged and performed with great nuance and musical taste. It’s quite an interesting contrast hearing other superb musicians playing Ellington’s songs, as the emphasis naturally shifts from Duke Ellington ‘the personality’ to his music itself.

By design, most of the small group musicians weren’t professionally associated with Ellington – and yet Granz’s securing the tenor saxophone services of Ben Webster was an inspired choice, as this former (and legendary) Ellington tenorman brought historical continuity to these renditions. All of the other performers were highly accomplished in their own right, including the great Ray Brown – Ella’s former husband – on bass; Barney Kessel on guitar; Paul Smith (Ella’s longtime accompanist) and the remarkable Oscar Peterson on piano; and all acquit themselves admirably. Even the highly personal (eccentric!) electric violin style of Stuff Smith is most welcome, this being the only instance the singer recorded with a jazz fiddler.

Ella’s four duets, whether vocal-guitar (three, accompanied by Kessel) or vocal-piano (with Peterson, on Strayhorn’s Lush Life), are uncommonly beautiful – and well worth reconsidering today, perhaps under the category: “How to sing a ballad.” During a lull in the orchestra sessions, Granz actually recorded Strayhorn accompanying Fitzgerald on Lush Life; hopefully this will be released at some point, as there remain very few (only two that I’m aware of) released versions of Strayhorn actually performing his masterpiece.

“She captures you somewhere through the facets of your intangibles.”

— Duke Ellington, LIFE

Just as the album was published in 1958, Ella and Ellington promoted the project at a dual-bill Carnegie Hall concert; the first of many joint gigs to come, both at home and abroad. The following year, the first Grammy Awards were presented, Ella receiving two – one of them in the category “Jazz Performance - Individual” for “Ella Fitzgerald sings the Duke Ellington Song Book.” A 1965 follow-up collection, “Ella at Duke’s Place”, also garnered a Grammy nominee (for “Vocal Performance - Female”).

If there is a better recorded ideal of what jazz singing can aspire to be, such an instance escapes me! To say this album is a ‘classic’ is perhaps even an understatement; it presents two of the century’s most important and creative musicians, at the peak of their considerable powers, in a lengthy retrospective which succeeds brilliantly in giving both artists their due. What to do for an encore?

Well, the following year, Ella began a thorough exploration of the Gershwin brothers’ songs...

Part Three:

“Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook”

“It is always possible to invent something original.”

— George Gershwin

Both Gershwins truly were originals; no doubt about that ... as was Ella Fitzgerald, jazz interpreter of popular music par excellence. In the final analysis, Fitzgerald’s grand artistry is perhaps best appreciated when considering her unique versions of George and Ira’s tunes. What remains astonishing is that the quantity of Gershwin songs recorded over her long and glorious career is as impressive as the consistently high quality of her renditions.

Their compositions proved to hold a greater attraction for Ella than those of any other songwriters included in her vast repertoire, as she first recorded one of George’s songs as far back as a 1949 “Jazz at the Philharmonic” Carnegie Hall concert: Somebody Loves Me, a catchy show tune from 1924. Much later, Ella was again recorded in the role of featured JATP vocalist; this time singing the brothers’ classic The Man I Love, from a late-1983 Japanese performance. No matter how many times she’d sung these tunes, the Gershwins’ songs never ceased being sources of inspiration for her.

“She made the mark for all female singers in our industry.”

— Dionne Warwick

Fitzgerald featured Gershwin material on no less than eighteen (by my count) of her albums, commencing with 1951’s “Ella Sings Gershwin”: eight marvelous duets accompanied by the wonderful Ellis Larkins on piano. A few years later, Norman Granz had the brilliant idea to pair Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong on selections from George’s 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess”; these classic sessions from August 1957 were arranged and conducted by Russell Garcia. Decades hence, there was to be a May 1983 trio album (Ella, Andre Previn on piano, and Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen on bass) featuring ten more Gershwin tunes.

But the crowning example of the extraordinary affinity between the Gershwins and Fitzgerald (indeed, Ira Gershwin was often heard saying things like “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them...”) was her mammoth 1959 Gershwin Song Book. Even ‘mammoth’ may be too understated a word here...

For this is what the original Verve package, now gloriously re-released on several compact disc collections, included: five LPs of the singer interpreting fifty-three songs of George and Ira Gershwin; a hard cover booklet featuring the analysis of noted critic Lawrence D. Stewart; a bonus disc of Nelson Riddle’s instrumental arrangements of George’s Ambulatory Suite and Preludes; and five original lithographs created by artist Bernard Buffet. What’s more, each pressing was autographed by Ella, Ira Gershwin, producer Norman Granz, and Nelson Riddle.

“George would draw a lovely melody out of the keyboard like a golden thread, then he would play with it and juggle it, twist it and toss it around mischievously, weave it into unexpected intricate patterns, tie it in knots and untie it and hurl it into a cascade of ever-changing rhythms and counterpoints.”

— Ira Gershwin

Ira’s keen insight into his brother’s vibrant compositional process offers the best explanation I have heard for why the Gershwins’ tunes have always been so popular among jazz musicians, for what is improvisation but instant composition? And what other composer was as in love with the energy of jazz than George Gershwin? Even his orchestral pieces surely bear this out.

No wonder, then, that Ella Fitzgerald was attracted to so many of his melodies – whether well-known ditties or seldom-heard songs. Of course, her Gershwin song book includes truly inspired versions of the brothers’ most popular tunes, including Love Is Here To Stay, ‘S Wonderful and I’ve Got A Crush On You, yet it also contains expert portrayals of relatively unknown ditties like My Cousin In Milwaukee, The Real American Folk Song and Just Another Rhumba.

Perhaps the most poignant rendering ever of But Not For Me stems from this collection. Although the singer had previously released a fine earlier version of the song (with Ellis Larkins), here her tender, delicate portrayal produced a peerless rendition. Interestingly, Ella also recorded a quicker interpretation of the song – a version which, while left out of this song book, was soon to be heard in the Clark Gable movie of the same name – for which she won a Grammy.

“In the continuing series of Ella Fitzgerald Song Books, this massive package is certainly the most ambitious undertaking ... it is eminently worth adding to a collection. One of the gratifying features of the collection is that Miss Fitzgerald sings the verse of almost every tune. Her performance is up to what we have come to expect from this superlative artist ... The Gershwin Song Book is a rare treat in popular music.”

Downbeat (from the original 5-star review, 1959)

Overseeing the entire undertaking was again, Norman Granz, owner of Verve Records and Ella’s manager at the time. Although Granz had by the time of this album developed a well-deserved reputation for being autocratic and difficult, seen in the fullness of time his contributions to jazz are immense. His most important achievement was undoubtedly the fact that he offered several important jazz artists (Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Roy Eldridge and Lester Young) the chance to consistently record material of their liking, in settings that best complemented their artistry. Fitzgerald certainly benefited from these opportunities as well.

No less an important contributor to this project’s successful outcome was Nelson Riddle. Throughout the 1950s, the great arranger was commissioned to write dozens of scores (several of them classics) for such famous artists as Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra. Riddle’s approach to arranging incorporated both strings and brass, in what may now be seen as a revolutionary idea: combining aspects of jazz and classical orchestrations. This unusual technique had evolved to the point where by 1959 Riddle’s consistently inventive Gershwin arrangements are now regarded as among the very best of his distinguished career.

“Women like Ella make you feel things that you didn’t know were missing in your life.”

— Melissa Manchester

The challenge of interpreting someone else’s music can be a daunting task, particularly as so many factors need to be considered. As a pianist I’ve dealt with this often, and I’m aware that many of these same issues exist for vocalists. Ideally, the professional singer and the instrumentalist should both take care to respect the intentions of the composer (where possible, studying original scores or listening to early versions of the music) while at the same time projecting his or her own personality into the performances. This balancing act may be tricky at times, but it can successfully be done.

Many musicians (to say nothing of artists of Ella Fitzgerald’s stature) have additional concerns, most notably walking the sometimes fine line between commercial and artistic considerations. But how Ella succeeded! Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Gershwin song book is its ability to be enjoyed simultaneously on two levels: the macro and the micro. Each individual track, while artistically uncompromising, is a wonderfully-realized creation of its own, able to be savored and appreciated apart from the collection it stems from. For those music lovers who have the inclination (the time?) to assimilate this entire project at one sitting, the rewards are even greater.

“She is our treasure. We’re proud of her. We love her.”

— Lena Horne

Given the scope of Ella Fitzgerald’s recorded legacy, culminating in her eight song books for Granz, it surely took an artist of uncommon abilities and integrity to create albums that remain so dazzling today. “The Gershwin Song Book,” Ella’s most extensive, was one of the greatest artistic triumphs in a life that literally bursted at the seams with great artistic triumphs.

In the final analysis, when all is said and done, and after so many words have been written, the best way to appreciate this marvelous woman’s gift to the world is simple: listen.

“The chick was too much, man! She was too hip. God bless her soul. I’m sorry that she’s left this place, because it’s a bit colder here now.”

— Jon Hendricks, shortly after Fitzgerald’s passing in 1996