Photo from Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook (1958)

Ella Fitzgerald’s Centennial: Is It Possible to Reinvent This Artist?

The First Lady of Song was a seeker, and it's been all too easy to just imitate her: the scatting, the silky melodies. On her 100th, there's a better way to do it.
Regina Carter
Accentuate the Positive

We’ve been celebrating Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday this year. There is much to celebrate. Fitzgerald was a great popular singer and jazz singer for well over 50 years. Born on 25 April 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald grew up in Yonkers, New York. She idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters and loved to dance and sing. She listened to Louis Armstrong and would eventually make recordings with him that are as beloved and wonderful as any popular singing in the 20th century could be.

I’ve been thinking about Ella lately because on this anniversary musicians have been reconsidering her and reimagining her body of work, but I also think that we’re all trying to liberate ourselves from her.

Just two years ago, we were considering the centennial of Billie Holiday, one of the few jazz singers who rivals Fitzgerald for influence (the others in that category are mainly Billie and Ella’s inspirations: Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith). Holiday’s legacy, however, was always more straight-forward than Ella’s. Holiday was a pure stylist whose art could not legitimately be imitated (sorry, Madeleine Peyroux) but who inspired countless artists to find their own voice. That has happened in a rich way and for decades.

Ella was a stylist too, but her engagement with music was more sweeping and more technical. In her mature years, she was a great “big band singer”, she became a prototype pop singer of standards backed by orchestras (including strings), she swung like a great bebop saxophonist with small groups, she became a brilliant and intimate duet partner, and she even entered the pop/media culture as a commercial spokesperson. The result, I believe, is that certain parts of her art served more as template than as an artistic spark. Countless young singers set up to “sing like Ella” rather than to sing like themselves because that’s what Ella did. The results were a thousand tepid pop albums of standards that lacked her finesse and magic and ten thousand scat solos that — hoo, boy — lacked her imagination and spark.

How does this art form account for Ella Fitzgerald but also leave the specifics of her — the scat singing, the athletic takes on “How High the Moon”, the immersion in Jerome Kern — for her, rather than as a blueprint?

Growing into an Artist: Ella’s History

Ella debuted at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the age of 17, and from that moment onward, Fitzgerald was in the public eye in various ways. She was a legitimate star and hit-maker before she was 20, recording “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “Swing it (Mr. Paganini)” with Chick Webb and his Orchestra. She took over the band after his death and became a leader. Like many other artists, Fitzgerald recorded too much silly stuff during the late ’30s and early ‘40s, novelty songs and throwaway stuff, but eventually, she became a true artist.

By the time Fitzgerald was 30, she had already started to defy expectations, quickly mastering the style of bebop at Dizzy Gillespie’s side, for example, and proving in the process that she was a musician with a sense of harmonic richness, rhythmic complexity, and improvisational adventure. She became what you might call “a musician’s singer” — a singer without formal musical training but a deep sense of how the music is structured.

Between 1956 and 1964, she embarked on a very different ambition: recording long (and largely definitive) collections of the classic “song books” of the great American composers of the era: Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. For many, this is the Ella that stuck: a silky voice with perfect intonation and careful style singing the best songs of the century with classy arrangements. On these records, Fitzgerald was cushioned by strings and brass, and she was only marginally a “jazz” singer.

While Ella was not always lucky with her companions and associations, her relationship with promoter and record producer Norman Granz was vital. He acted as her manager, put out the “songbook” records on his Verve label, and facilitated her key role in his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and tours. As a result, she was a huge jazz festival draw, collaborated with everyone in the jazz firmament, made appearances in films and on television, and found a level of artistic and commercial success that crossed lots of boundaries. Verve put out the Songbooks, but it also produced two small-group encounters with Louis Armstrong, several classic live records with her invincible trios, a great platter made with the Marty Paich Dek-tette, a searching duo with pianist Paul Smith, and what has to the best jazz Christmas album, period.

This purple patch lasted into the mid-’60s, and if that had been the whole career, she would have been an all-time great. But Ella kept singing, and when Granz started a new label, Pablo, in 1973, she started signed up and made some of the best record of her career: three exquisite collections of duets with guitarist Joe Pass, one with pianist Oscar Peterson, brilliant stuff with her trio (with pianist Tommy Flanagan at the helm) and added guests, a pairing with the Basie band, and a Jobim record. The standard line on her ‘70s and ‘80s work is that the voice was going, that she was fading, and that ebullient art and lush style didn’t age well. But the evidence doesn’t support it. She made simpler records during this time that purposely exposed her voice and made it more intimate, but the voice was still great. For me, the last duo set with Pass, 1986’s Easy Living finds the singer taking risks, carving out interesting phrases, holding rich tones, getting sassy, and reaching for my heart. Fading? Most singers would lucky to sound this great on their best day.

Most remarkably, perhaps, Ella became one of the definitive and best-loved faces of a music that really mattered. Every time a jazz singer in a cartoon or skit of some kind is found “boo-bee-doo-beeee”-ing, it’s because Ella made that athletic scatting like nothing else. In the ’70s, she made an iconic ad for Memorex recording tape: she sings a high note and breaks a wine glass, but so does a recording of her. “Is it live, or is it Memorex” was the tagline, but the real legacy is that only Ella had her art sit at the very center of her commercial appropriation. Unlike Billie Holiday, who became a tragic, romantic figure who happened to sing, Ella was singing. She was the epitome of singing, and her form was not only jazz but just great American music, period.

Making Something New of Ella

How, then, do today’s artists honor that history? The imitators inevitably move on to something else. Look at Nikki Yanofsky, whose first album was called Ella … of Thee I Swing, made when she was 14 years old. Every time she’s recorded since she has stepped further away from Fitzgerald but also found it hard to let her go. The second album was half standards. The third was a pop album but actually contained “Jeepers Creepers 2.0”, an Ella-associated tune given synth bass and pop stylings. Imitating Fitzgerald was Yanofsky’s shtick, but not her core. Not her future. Good.

More interesting, lately, have been tributes to Ella from mature artists come at her legacy from a wise distance.

Regina Carter, the astonishing violinist whose jazz chops need no introduction, recently released Accentuate the Positive, which consists of nine tunes recorded by Fitzgerald, but only one (the title track) that has been done to death. Moreover, Carter (along with a killer band including bassist Chris Lightcap, pianist Xavier Davis, drummer Alvester Garnett, and guitarist Marvin Sewell) interprets the tunes through the lens of soul, blues, and jazz. The result is a disc that avoids every pitfall: it’s not “smooth jazz” even through it grooves and uses some pop conventions; she uses great vocalists, but no one falls into an Ella imitation, and most importantly, it doesn’t get mired in some kind of nostalgia.

Instead, Carter lays into some gospel with “I’ll Never Be Free”. She uses the gorgeous bell-toned Rhodes of Davis to give “All My Life” both shine and warmth. “Judy” is a duet between her and Sewell’s clean electric guitar that has syncopated stripped-down pop pleasure. “Dedicated to You” is a straight jazz ballad for violin and acoustic piano trio. “Undecided” puts singer Carla Cook atop a rockin’ blues groove. The result is a really cool piece of work. Dig into “Undecided” and listen to the restraint. That’s Ella. Listen to the blues coursing through Carter’s violin solo—that’s Ella too. Cook scats her own way, a nod to the master, but the band grooves throughout, setting up a Sewell guitar solo that trades off with the scatting. B3 organ swells under bridge like this was a Motown track. It borrows from the best in our American music but doesn’t cheapen any of it.

Like Ella did it.

I also enormously admire Jane Monheit’s recent The Songbook Sessions — Ella Fitzgerald, where she collaborates with trumpeter Nicholas Payton in producing a set of Ella-related tunes that defy expectations and reach for originality. “Ill Wind” is done with a wild abandon that utterly flies in the face of safety. “All Too Soon” is strutting and cocky, all bent notes, funky acoustic bass, and Fender Rhodes groove. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — a tune we know way too well — is throbbing and reharmonized. You’ll come away from Songbook with a fresh perspective on Ella Fitzgerald.

These two collections are truer to The First Lady of Song than anything I’ve heard since dear Ella passed in 1996. Ella’s own records mostly sound vintage today, with their strings and big bands and swing beats. But at her core, she was an explorer. When she decided to become a bopper rather than “band singer”, she flew at the edge. When she exposed her voice to more scrutiny as she got older by playing so many duets, she was inviting a microscope and exposing her heart.

Ella was a punk, an iconoclast. Let’s keep honoring her with forward motion, which is something she knew well.