Ella Fitzgerald’s Centenary

 

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. I want to present her to you in the way that, so far as I can judge, shows best what is memorable about her. The singers may love something which we do not all know and the connoisseurs may have memories of her singing that we cannot all share. But the albums she recorded, especially the ones that recapitulate and thus justify the great American songbook, are a possession for all, and one of the small blessings that add joy to life.

My friend Mark would say something like this about Ella Fitzgerald, that she is at home wherever she chooses to sing, and she chooses freely. To understand what it means to be at home in being free in singing seems to me to understand the delight Ella offers and the cause finally of her dominating American popular music in her time. I want to show you a few things about Ella’s art and the poetic effects she desired to achieve and achieved effortlessly. I will look to the great American songbook, because Ella’s career, moving away from jazz and bebop, only attained to greatness when she turned to the standards in the Fifties, when she was no longer a girl. It is no surprise that the most gifted singer of her time should have taken her sweet time to get to the most worthwhile songs. After all, in America the excellent were called standards…

Before popular music involved itself with democratic politics and America’s incessant revolutions, it had a kind of strange authority–most obvious in the great American songbook. The mere suggestion, close to a canon, implies not only knowledge of American music, but a confidence that endless change is not America’s destiny–that some precious things will not be rendered unto oblivion. In the great writers, musicians, and singers, America had a sure defense against forgetfulness and its ugliest child, ingratitude. The songbook was not merely heard, but read–Americans used to buy untold numbers of copies of the sheet music to loved songs. In this dispersal lay safety, because Americans are jealous of their possessions, and can therefore defend them. In this proliferation of novelties, the great could grow among the mediocre, the memorable among the forgettable, and the deep insights among the frivolities.

I have chosen two Cole Porter songs from her ’56 album dedicated to this most delightful and immoral of the famous writers of the jazz era. He was the most sophisticated of the writers who introduced modern love to America and much in need of the moderating influences of a singer whose confidence exceeded the boundaries of popularity or talent. Invariably, reading Cole Porter’s lyrics, one feels that lovers today would fail to understand most of the things he says, and yet he speaks to and about their experience far more than about any phenomena of his own time. In this sense, if only they gain access to his work, young Americans would gain a necessary counter-poison to the passions stirred and complicated by their own popular music. There are two gates of access to Cole Porter–the one is Sinatra–the other Fitzgerald. Of the two, she is the voice of moderation, playful where Porter would be reckless, which Sinatra tended to glamorize.

Cole Porter wrote “You’d Be So Easy to Love for Anything Goes in 1934, a show so full of wonderful numbers that he cut it. It was instead introduced in a 1936 movie, Born to Dance. If you can believe it, Jimmy Stewart was involved, not the very model of a modern major hoofer or crooner. The lyrics are incredibly sophisticated, but at the same time effortless. It gives the speech of a lover who contemplates his extreme longing and the vision of a happy future it promises even as he acknowledges its illusory character–this speech is for the benefit of an audience who is not even asked to reciprocate. Will the beloved be charmed by music where love would otherwise not inspire? Is the love speech itself the charm that the lover concocts to achieve what the love speech promises?

I know too well that I’m just wasting precious time

in thinking such a thing could be, that you could ever care for me.

I’m sure you hate to hear that I adore you, dear,

but grant me, just the same, I’m not entirely to blame…

The verse is unabashedly apologetic. This lover knows his pleas fall on deaf ears, but he persists. Were this as artless a profession of love as it pretends to be, it would make no sense. But art will overcome willfulness now and again, so why not try? And, too, persistence is in itself flattering, added to the flattery of being recognized in one’s inaccessible perfection.

What the voice adds here is sweetness and patience. The melody is simple, pleasing, and clever. The odd lines, so seemingly apologetic, rise delightfully and give the lie. Music is here using manners or politeness to defeat their purpose! So that it is less of a surprise that the lower melody of the even lines is sung with a certain insinuation–there is a hint in the voice that there is some collusion between singer and audience, and not so much innocence as professed. The singing suggests, at the end of the verse, a lingering coyness.

You’d be so easy to love!

So easy to idolize all others above!

So worth the yearning for,

so swell to keep every home fire burning for!

This is what prepares the introduction of the chorus, which expresses longing in a very powerful way before moving on to melody. Porter was a master of alternating natural facts with sophisticated phrases to create allure or tension or even shock. This is how the chorus begins and Ella is remarkably frank in giving voice to the erotic longing and then returning to it in the third line. The alternation of short and long lines also suggests erotic elation: Anticipating joy is its own argument, so to speak.

And we would be so grand at the game,

carefree together, that it does seem a shame

that you can’t see your future with me!

‘Cause you’d be, oh, so easy to love!

Afterward comes a more modest, wistful statement. This achieves a certain balance, by contrasts. The poetic effect depends on this sophisticated move from offering a vision of love, a spontaneous experience coming to speech, to an offer of possession of that vision to the speechless audience. You can say that the lover is all eyes, then all mouth; but the beloved is all ears. The adjective we would reach for, to describe Ella’s moving in between the three different parts of the speech, is natural. And yet all this comes by an art complementary to the poet’s art. Singing is as much a seduction. Lovers naturally try to make themselves pleasing, which beloveds do not, for they are naturally pleasing already. The artful learn artlessness from the artless. The work of poetry, however, is to offer something that could interest a beloved in becoming a lover–another kind of beauty. Love is all about complicating innocence.

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  1. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    I saw Ella in one of her last performances, at Ravinia Festival in 1991, when she had to be helped offstage, but she still had that swing. Happy Birthday Ella! And thanks for the post Titus.

    • #1
  2. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    I was thinking the other day about her Songbook series.  Porter, Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen, Mercer, Kern, Ellington, and Rodgers & Hart.  Sinatra’s record label wanted to organize his songs into songbook albums to cash in on the popularity of Ella’s series and Sinatra told them to knock it off in deference to her.

    I’m going to add something not from the songbook, though.  Her Grammy winning performance of “Mack the Knife” where she forgets the lyrics and just keeps going:

    • #2
  3. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    One more from off the beaten path.  Ella’s duet with Louis Jordan.  “Stone Cold Dead in the Market.”  Politically incorrect six ways from Sunday.  It always makes me smile.

    • #3
  4. Gumby Mark Thatcher
    Gumby Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Funny, I was just about to say something like Ella is at home wherever she chooses to sing, and she chooses freely.  I’ll add one (though it is so hard to choose), Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life with Oscar Peterson on piano.

    • #4
  5. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    She recorded this one many times over the years. Lovely piece.

    • #5
  6. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    What a lovely, lovely post, Titus.  I hope it goes on and on.

    • #6
  7. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Here’s a beautiful Ella cameo from Hollywood in Pete Kelly’s Blues, a bit of an oddity for which Peggy Lee won an Academy Award.

    • #7
  8. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Thanks, TT! When I’m at the PC, I’ll add my favorite collaboration: Miss Ella and Satchmo’s duet “Under A Blanket of Blue”.

    There we go…

    • #8
  9. JS Coolidge
    JS
    @JulieSnapp

    Just seeing Ella Fitzgerald in your post title made “Dream a Little Dream” become my active ear worm.

    • #9
  10. Franz Drumlin Member
    Franz Drumlin
    @FranzDrumlin

    I was just about to scour my bookshelves for titles to add to Top Five Books Every Conservative Should Read when I clicked on this post (thanks, Titus – I would have missed Ella’s B’Day). Books can wait. Here’s my contribution to the no-doubt ever-growing YouTube suggestions this post will elicit. I think Ella’s reading of the lyrics of Cole Porter’s astonishing break near the end of the song (“And so when wise men say to me . . .”) is one of the greatest moments in all music.

    • #10
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    By the way, this is the movie where the song was introduced:

    This includes some of the lines that show how Porter rejoiced in speaking almost like an American. He rhymes ‘waken with’ & ‘eggs & bacon with.’

    • #11
  12. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Franz Drumlin (View Comment):
    I was just about to scour my bookshelves for titles to add to Top Five Books Every Conservative Should Read when I clicked on this post (thanks, Titus – I would have missed Ella’s B’Day). Books can wait. Here’s my contribution to the no-doubt ever-growing YouTube suggestions this post will elicit. I think Ella’s reading of the lyrics of Cole Porter’s astonishing break near the end of the song (“And so when wise men say to me . . .”) is one of the greatest moments in all music.

    I concentrate on you is such a good companion speech–it’s the speech of a beloved turning into a lover & coming into the position to receive all the warnings lovers cannot heed. This is the beloved renouncing worldly wisdom.

    As to the books for conservatives–it’s inherently offensive to conservatism to come up with such lists–however well-intentioned Americans surely are. I’ve not paid attention beyond the opening salvo–what worries me is the preference of conservatives for polemical arguments over their natural possession–novels, poetry, the rich descriptions of what’s worth conserving that appeal to the sentiments to attract, attach, & educate gently rather than prepare them to be combative…

    • #12
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):
    One more from off the beaten path. Ella’s duet with Louis Jordan. “Stone Cold Dead in the Market.” Politically incorrect six ways from Sunday. It always makes me smile.

    ‘The jury acquitted rhythmically, then joined the conga line.’

    • #13
  14. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Also, Quinn, I waited so long to post because I thought this was really your beat…

    • #14
  15. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    I always liked her. I liked her best when she was collaborating with Louis Armstrong.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjrOKg8wH44

    • #15
  16. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Saw Ella in concert with Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass.  About as good as it gets.

    • #16
  17. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Also, Quinn, I waited so long to post because I thought this was really your beat…

    Alas I am overwhelmed with work and music posts and my group “The Federalist Papers Revisited.”  But I am also happy to share the beat with anyone who wants.  There is not nearly enough culture writing on Ricochet.

    • #17
  18. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    Saw Ella in concert with Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass. About as good as it gets.

    Piano & guitar both? That must be rare!

    • #18
  19. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    Saw Ella in concert with Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass. About as good as it gets.

    Piano & guitar both? That must be rare!

    They performed individually and all together, as I recall.  The concert was 30+ years ago – so my memories are fading on the specifics.  Even then, my wife and I knew that all three of these artists were “bucket listers” – and wouldn’t be performing all that much longer. It was a rare opportunity.

    btw – Your OP was great.

    • #19
  20. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Thanks, kindly. I’ll be publishing the second part later today.

    I’ll confess to a kind of annoyance–I’m for sure Ella is not going to get anything like the centenary Sinatra got. Not that they’re the same for influence or cultural staying power, or whatever people might call it. But I hope at least on Ricochet we’ll post now & then on her music.

    I’ll try & do some more myself, every now & again. Not remembering things is wasting lots of opportunities one doesn’t even know one had…

    • #20
  21. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Morning Titus,

    Read the post to Mommo, she loved it.  Her home town Spencer is similar to Peru (said with a long e) although at the opposite end of the state.  At the centenary of Porter, Stewart recalled that during the filming, he asked Porter, if he could lower some of the high notes, Porter being a hard headed Hoosier (tautology, eh) did not rework the high notes.

    Morning Quinn,

    Mommo loved “Killed Nobody but My Husband”, she had never heard it, she’s 95.

    Isn’t music wonderful!

    • #21
  22. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Admittedly, Stewart was still a nobody at that point, barely playing the villain in the second Thin man movie, but I agree about not lowering the notes. It’s good for people to rise to the occasion, ahem.

    Come to think of it, it was Jimmy Stewart who did a bit of Over the rainbow in The Philadelphia story. Brings a mouthful of America with him. I liked it; I wish he had recorded it, just for novelty…

    • #22
  23. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Brings a mouthful of America with him.

    Mouth, mind, heart – and military grit, too. I [HEART] Mr. Stewart to bits!  Thanks for this…

    • #23
  24. Randal H Member
    Randal H
    @RandalH

    Reading your post about Ella just after I had finished reading this article about Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick has put me in a nostalgic mood this morning. I’m not sure earlier times were simpler, but in retrospect they seem a whole lot more sane (feuding over a funeral notwithstanding) in many ways.

    • #24
  25. JL Inactive
    JL
    @CrazyHorse

    I had no idea if Ella Fitzgerald could translate to harpsichord — but for the grace of God goes Titus.

    Nice work.

    • #25
  26. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Ella was such a treasure.  I would say she has the same status as Frank Sinatra as being the defining interpretation of the American Songbook, Fitzgerald from the female perspective.  I can’t think off the top of my head which of her recordings I love the most but this one from Rodgers and Hart is very lovely.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3Y7TpNi3x0

    And because I have a preference for Duke Ellington compositions, listen Ella do Take the ‘A’ Train.  You can get a full appreciation of her scatting.

    As usual, great post Titus.

    • #26
  27. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Thanks a bunch. & surely you mean Billy Strayhorn!

    • #27
  28. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    By the way, if somehow there’s anyone left who does not know, I’m the kind of lightning that strikes as least twice, here’s the second coup de foudre!

    • #28
  29. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Thanks a bunch. & surely you mean Billy Strayhorn!

    You’re right that was a Strayhorn composition. My bad. I thought it was one of Ellington’s early songs but it was Strayhorn in 1944. For Ellington’s band for those that don’t know, so I wasn’t way off.

    • #29
  30. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    No, not at all. Duke & Strayhorn were very close, for decades. I just thought I’d add another twist, so to speak, to keep the audience on the edge of their seats! Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but he was in many ways an innocent. Duke was impressed with his ideas for arrangements & such, & took him into his band. From the A train to the late suites, they were always together, whoever did most of the writing in any given case…

    • #30

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