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My post yesterday was to say something worthwhile about Ella on her centenary. I tried to show her moderating effect on Cole Porter’s music. Let me summarize my remarks without repetition: Ella has power, but she has sweetness as well, and no one ever got a heart attack from her music. Her phrasing and diction have the wonderful power of removing from Porter’s wit his least attractive characteristic, his fickleness. Her command of the music allows the wit to shine but removes most of the sting. Her mood is not as ironic as his; instead, there is something better even than his self-deprecatory humor about his fickle love — she can console even as she pleases. This is a rare achievement and there is little more that I can do than signal it.
I will return to my theme, and give it a name. Ella Americanized Porter. I have joked here before that my contemplated book on Porter has a title already — Love We’d Prefer Immoral — and I will write about Cole Porter again. But Ella is the exception to that attitude. I want to talk to you again about her moderating effect as a singer, but in a surprising way: Not by a soft lyrical attitude, as before — but by jazz. I’ll talk to you about a number with much more swing to it, “It’s All Right with Me.”
It’s the wrong time and the wrong place.
Though your face is charming, it’s the wrong face:
It’s not his face, but such a charming face,
that it’s all right with me.
It’s the wrong song, in the wrong style.
Though your smile is lovely, it’s the wrong smile:
It’s not his smile, but such a lovely smile,
that it’s all right with me.
The band is threatening to run away with this one early — this is usually a slow, fairly sad song. Ella comes in and calms things down — she keeps the swing, but takes some of the bluster out of the band. The lyric and the band are at such cross-purposes that it takes a rare talent to make them match. They match two different aspects of love. The self-importance of discovery — the assuredness desire gives a lover; and the mood of love, which endures even when the longing has been defeated.
This is about experience, not innocence–one needs to have learned to fail in love to understand how problematic it is to try to love again. Porter presumed, as he always did, that there’s some witty way to deal with this contradiction between love of beauty (a charming face) and self-love (the wrong face, that is, not the one recalled to mind, not the memory, the last possession of a failed love).
The wrong time and place connect to the wrong song and style. Doomed love calls to the slower pace of the blues. Beauty is an attack on the dignity of suffering, dividing the heart against itself. Is it down in the dumps or off to the races again? Is it hitting rock bottom or high in the sky all over again? The swing ekes out an important victory here, but it is a complicated victory, just like the question of charm for poetry.
Is love merely playing with images that recall or dispel experiences turned into memories? Or is the wrong face really the right face? The soul of the lover is vulnerable and the inward remembering and the outward desire threaten to turn the comedy of the confusion of right and wrong charms into something tragic. Is what the lover is learning that love is a tyrant who cannot be escaped even by the failure of love?
This is the burden the singer has to bear. I’ve heard this song sung well and ill, slow and fast, and this is the only recording that satisfies me. I sense what Porter was getting at and I’m persuaded he was on to something. Ella balances regret, doubt, and the attitude of romance, to love and be loved. She gives expression to the experience that so captivated Cole Porter, the transformation of a beloved into a lover, the hope to be understood in being desired…
You can’t know how happy I am that we met:
I’m strangely attracted to you!
There’s someone I’m trying so hard to forget:
Don’t you want to forget someone, too?
What’s startling about the change here is that we get a shocking human predicament expressed so naturally that the only shocking thing is that it should emerge at all. We start with knowledge of happiness and end with forgetting past love. That’s the motion that’s instigated by the strange situation where a blue lover is charmed by another would-be lover. This brings up questions about what can really be shared. Do we share merely the illusions that come up with desire? Or do our experiences give us a chance to share something true about what makes us human? Are we bound to end up hurt, diminished in love–or is learning about our limits through our failures a way to learn how to put two together in a genuine way?
Experience and psychology work in reverse order here. The spontaneous, unsought, unexpected pleasure of being faced with a searching love leads to this inquiry — are we alike in our experience? But psychologically, the pleasure of new love, to be genuine or not delusive requires a previous awareness of failure. It is common sense that past failures have to be forgotten if there is to be any chance for new hopes. But it is only past failure, only experience that prepares us for something like happiness.
What’s strange about the attraction is that love’s first attraction is to indifference, so to speak. We are perfectly capable of falling in love at first sight, with people who do not even know we exist. That is very unlike this subsequent possibility, being offered love — being attracted to another lover is both a chance to relive the experience of falling in love, this time in someone else, and to avoid the misunderstandings and mistakes that doom love. It’s as though only second chances are real chances.
It is a human kind of wisdom to know that love is mostly not first love. There is then always a need for consolation in love, as well as for assurances that there is something to learn to improve, if we are to become worth being loved as fiercely as first love offers. There is a need for patience — this is what the wrong game with the wrong chips means. The wise answer to this offer of love is to delay it. The flattery of being loved and the need to get over the potentially life-ending catastrophe of doomed love only come together in patience. Charm should be a cure for the temptation of despair — nature should defeat the typical romantic illusions that make for us a home of suffering. But succumbing to charms is being foolish.
Ella sings like a wise woman, but not with a knowing attitude. She conveys the humanity of irony — an awareness of our limits and our enterprise. She allows wit to be a searching form of neediness — a way to inquire as to whether we could learn something good for us. She does not use her musical powers to enslave or to distract. The longing in the soul that she brings out by her music is neither despised nor worshiped. It is given the freedom to work itself out because it is guided by a more reliable kind of beauty. It would be too much, and false, to say that she makes love reasonable. But she does reason with love in a reasonable way. She chides and consoles, she concedes and charms. What more can music to do for civilization?
It’s the wrong game, with the wrong chips.
Though your lips are tempting, they’re the wrong lips:
They’re not his lips, but they’re such tempting lips,
that, if some night, you are free,
dear, it’s all right, yes, it’s all right with me!
The song was written for Can-Can, Cole Porter’s last Broadway hit. Like his first, it was about the place he loved best, Paris, and so a fitting end to his career. He still had it in him to capture an audience with romantic touches at once obvious and sophisticated, letting allusion do his work — as in “I Love Paris.” He still had it in him to charm with frivolity — as in “C’est Magnifique.” He wrote about love for an adult audience — his self-appointed task as comic poet was to make experience enjoyable. This show was made into a pleasing 1960 musical starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine.
Cole is thought to have said, presented with this album of his songs, that the girl has diction. I think I know why he disapproved of Ella — but it would take going into the strange world between the wars to say. The short answer is, he was wrong, both about his past and about the future that Ella embodied. This album was the first on the Verve label Ella’s manager created around her. She was moving out of jazz and bebop, where she had found her powers. There was not much future in it and she needed a future in music. It did not measure up to the ambitions her manager nursed in her. The American songbook finally gave Ella the proper object of her art and she managed, I do not know how, to put together the varying, diverging requirements of music and speech in a way than which nothing more elegant was seen in America.