In celebration of International Jazz Day, remembering the contributions of jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald. Ella’s artistry and improvisational skills are amazing, and while she may not have invented scatting, there’s a good reason Ella is usually the first artist who comes to mind when referencing the form.
Throughout my childhood, Ella was everywhere, on T.V. and performing at pop and jazz festivals all over the world. If you are a boomer of a certain age, your parents and grandparents were likely huge fans, so you may have viewed her in the same way as Louie Armstrong, Nat King Cole and other great artists who later in their careers were seen first as entertainers.
Ella’s ability to hold her audience in thrall in no way detracted from her soaring vocal gifts. The story of her breakout performance, performing at the Apollo Theater is well documented, and her 1938 performance of the children’s nursery rhyme A Tisket A Tasket recorded with the Chick Webb Orchestra became a jazz standard.
Here’s a lighthearted performance of the song taken from a scene of the 1942 Abbott and Costello movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy:
Ella’s voice was angelic, pure and clear, and her timing and phrasing were jazz inspired; her delivery often evocative of a trumpet or trombone. In the tradition of other instrumental soloists, Ella expands on her free-form riffing while interweaving samples from other popular songs, snippets of familiar sounds, and even cultural stylings.
Nowhere are her scatting skills and vocal stamina better displayed than in this live performance of How High The Moon. Ella branches off on several bars of Bird’s classic Ornithology, drops in Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking, a short bugle call, a gravelly trombone section, and even a snake charming, far-eastern inspired change of pace, as she bounces and swings through the entire song.
Unlike other artists whose voices reveal artifacts of strain and aging, cracking or scratchiness, or a lowering register, Ella’s voice maintained a girlish quality and purity of tone her entire life. I have a memory of Ella from the twilight of her career, though I’m not sure if the venue was at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC, the Palace Theater in Stamford, CT or a tribute special to Ella on television, but I do remember she took the stage looking a bit frail and unsteady. However, once the music started she seems to draw energy from the musicians and audience until you could feel the joy of performing flowing through her.
Such is the magic of Jazz, the magic of the jazz artist Ella Fitzgerald, our First Lady Of Song…
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