Cole Porter and Ella Fitzgerald

 

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.

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  1. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Thanks, TT!  Miss Ella always lifts my spirits – swinging a melancholy song…Just right!

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    It’s a good piece, Titus, and I agree with a lot of it, but …

    Titus Techera: 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.

    That’s not how it works. The band can’t follow her lead — they have to press on because they have to stay together and there’s no telling where she might go with her interpretation. If anyone is keeping them reined in, it is the conductor. That’s his job.

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

    The Cole Porter album was the first album from the Songbook set that I got.  I didn’t recognize its importance of the series, but it has been my favorite of the songbook albums.

    • #3
  4. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Ok, well, I didn’t understand any of that, but I deeply, deeply love both Cole Porter as the composer of one-fifth of the source of the Great American Songbook (along with Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, and Jerome Kern), and Ella’s interpretation thereof.  Even more so than Sinatra’s.

    • #4
  5. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    I disagree. It’s not Porter’s fickleness. It’s his nonchalant and breezy attitude in his lyrics, coupled with his moody melody that made his music so attractive and enduring.

    • #5
  6. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    LC (View Comment): I disagree. It’s not Porter’s fickleness. It’s his nonchalant and breezy attitude in his lyrics, coupled with his moody melody that made his music so attractive and enduring.

    I don’t see that we disagree. What I said was:

    Titus Techera: Her phrasing and diction have the wonderful power of removing from Porter’s wit his least attractive characteristic, his fickleness.

     

    • #6
  7. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Percival (View Comment):
    It’s a good piece, Titus, and I agree with a lot of it, but …

    Titus Techera: 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.

    That’s not how it works. The band can’t follow her lead — they have to press on because they have to stay together and there’s no telling where she might go with her interpretation. If anyone is keeping them reined in, it is the conductor. That’s his job.

    Sure. But I did not want to introduce him into the discussion, so I left it at the band regaining their senses when Ella comes in… I don’t want to deny the bandleader his dues, of course, only to get at the uses & disadvantages of a big band, with all its bluster, when you have to deal with sentimental matters.

    By the way, Ella was a bandleader for a couple of years, in her early twenties. Well, nominally. I’m not sure how much she led the band…

    • #7
  8. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    An amazing analysis of the inherent dramatic tension in the lyrics. That is a challenging task for a singer to embody in performance, especially on a recording – but Ella (as you astutely pointed out) was more than up to the task.

    When “It’s All Right with Me” is performed as it was originally intended – as a character song in a dramatic scene from the musical Can-Can – this dynamic push-and-pull (“a blue lover is charmed by a would-be lover”) is much easier to convey. But Can-Can was written during the era of musical theatre when songs were composed not only for the characters and plot of the show, but with an eye toward stand-alone status as a popular song. Few were better at bridging this double-purpose than Cole Porter.

    Interesting additional point: “It’s All Right with Me” was inserted into the score of a refashioned/remounted 1998 Broadway production of High Society (based on the 1956 musical film which is based on the play and film The Philadelphia Story.) In the musical, an intoxicated Tracy sings alone on stage about her conflicted feelings instigated by the flirtatious attention from the reporter Mike and her recently-rediscovered love for her ex-husband Dexter.  And the song works. Still. Musically and dramatically.

    That’s (part of) the genius of Cole Porter.

    • #8
  9. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Of course, The Philadelphia story is one of the contenders in the age when Americans effortlessly made great romantic comedies!

    As for the ’98 show, yes, they added numbers from other shows & I’m glad they did!

    • #9
  10. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Also, thanks for the kind words! & I do agree that there’s great opportunity in the double challenge of addressing the American audience &, on the other hand, making characterization in a story work. It reminds you that human experience is important, not abstract sentiment alone…

    • #10
  11. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    You see fickleness in his wit, but I don’t. I think the effortlessness of his humor is what made his music so accessible and current. You can’t say that with the other guys. Even Berlin can feel dated at times. Ella didn’t take his music to a whole new level. Even with his over-the-top frivolity, his music still feels restrained by the melody. Porter’s music sounds wonderful with Ella or Sinatra or Stacey Kent, except Rod Stewart. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s a Cole Porter’s number or Irving Berlin’s piece, Rod Stewart kills them all.

    • #11
  12. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    LC (View Comment):
    You see fickleness in his wit, I don’t. I think the effortless of his humor is what made his music so accessible and current. You can’t say that with other guys. Even Berlin can feel dated at times. Ella didn’t take his music to a whole new level. Even with his over-the-top frivolity, his music still feels restrained by the melody. Porter’s music sounds wonderful with Ella or Sinatra or Stacey Kent, except Rod Stewart. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s a Cole Porter’s number or Irving Berlin’s piece, Rod Stewart kills them all.

    I just heard Bob Dylan’s rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark” on a radio show this past weekend…If Stewart’s a killer of American standards, Dylan could be the mortician, who buries them.

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

    Of course, should someone hold Cole Porter in even higher regard than I have allowed, that’s criticism I can take without batting an eyelid. I’m glad to be an instigating member of a Ricochet Cole Porter society, not to say a national revival of interest!

    • #13
  14. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Evening Titus,

    When a woman sings lyrics written by a man, the listener makes  changes unconsciously.  Cole and other men write lyrics in which women say words women would not say and have attitudes not really held by women in general or generally.  A woman may imagine or think an affair with Cary Grant might be grand, but women are not as casual about having affairs as men or as men would like them to be.  This is especially true for Cole whose affairs might be more brief and frequent than most men.  Ella has that “girl-next-door” quality to her voice, playful, innocent which allows the song to be heard in a more wistful and generous way, and not in a way suggesting just a casual affair.

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

    There is, yes, quite a difference. But you bring a question to mind: How do you think about Sinatra’s voice?

    • #15
  16. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Hello again Titus,

    I hear Sinatra as male in that when I hear the same song I hear not just alright but, how ’bout it.

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

    I was just thinking about the recording from this album that I have seen most frequently in popular culture.  “Too Darn Hot.”  Almost always played with the suggestion that the 1950s were racier than people remember.

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

    Heh. They gotta was, ’cause people remember ’em like it was Doris Day all day every day…

    • #18
  19. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Evening Titus,

    On the “My Music” show Dennis Norden and Ian Wallace recall that BBC radio was restrictive on suggestive songs, listing tunes not to be broadcast, including; “June is Busting Out All Over” and “Heat Wave”, and of course “Love For Sale”, in Heat Wave the lyrics had to be changed from making her seat wave to making her feet wave which as Dennis said made no sense.  Also on song had the lyric “turn off the light and go to bed” which was even worse changed to “turn off the light and go to sleep”.  Over here the movie “Guys and Dolls” has winks everywhere, the Hot Box Club, and Pet me Papa.  I think the recollection of the time is more Doris Day that it was. In “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, the girl being described loves to pet and it fits her to a tee.  What was understood then, that is confused with prudery, is the separation of public and private conduct, and how appearance counts, and part of being adult is to model modesty and restraint in public, and that to do so was adult behavior understanding that we are not asbestos.  This split goes back to Puritan times where in private letters men and women described longings for each other as “bodice ripping” as modern novels.

    • #19
  20. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Evening Again Titus,

    The lyrics to “Stone Cold Dead…..” are funny and comic, but even with that understanding it would be hard to imagine a song similar in content and comic feeling.  It makes me wonder about the culture in which this song fits.  Also in “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”  the woman sings that she will not call the coppers if she is punched in the choppers, a similar line appears in “Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”, what is the culture where these lyrics are normal enough as to not be provocative?  Men are often in songs distant and rough, not so much in movies, grapefruit in the face none the less.

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

    Jim, hello from the mournful grey of Transylvania!

    Now, about the Doris Day-ing of America. (Who quipped about knowing  Doris Day before she had become a virgin? Some wag, Oscar Levant..) I agree that keeping up appearances has a moral influence on people, whether they will admit it or not, whether they can articulate it to themselves adequately or not. I do agree that a certain modesty & a certain restraint are necessary & useful to the education of sentiments; to civilization. Elsewise, how are the young especially to have any chance to contend with their instincts & to learn about love?

    I think, however, that innuendo of the kind Cole Porter liked is also good & necessary. Among free peoples who devote so much of their interest to private, rather than public, life, it is inevitable that the passions will play out in interstitial realms, neither quite public, nor yet really all that private–business, shows & many other kinds of spectacles, popular music above all–&, of course, the churches–&, nowadays, the internet. Some relaxation of moral rules is required which innuendo supplies. It tests the limits, but it reinforces them at the same time. It develops a taste for some subtlety where the alternative would be forthright vulgarity, to say nothing worse.

    It is our understanding of the importance of keeping up appearances that should warn us. We do not merely live by appearances in order to live well, or at all–after all, if we truly believed nothing is as it appears, life were intolerable! But just like we aspire to better ourselves because of good appearances, we can also become complacent & believe that we really are as good & righteous as we appear to be! This leads people very complacently to turn a blind eye to their real duties…

    I raise an eyebrow at the proprieties of the Fifties for that reason–nobody paid much attention to the coming democratic revolution in tastes musical, sartorial, & otherwise. America, publicly & privately, was unable or unwilling to deal with the excesses that came in the Sixties; & did so again in the Seventies.

    I think that’s tied up with how well proprieties sold in the Fifties & the extent to which fantasies like Doris Day were marketed to audiences…

     

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

    As for the rough stuff, that causes the head to shake. I recall Billie Holliday singing My man–the bitterness in that honest, prosaic series of statements seems one of the few convincing moral attitudes…

    • #22
  23. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    As for the rough stuff, that causes the head to shake. I recall Billie Holliday singing My man–the bitterness in that honest, prosaic series of statements seems one of the few convincing moral attitudes…

    I love the Sarah Vaughan’s rendition of that song.

    • #23
  24. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Which one? This one?

    • #24
  25. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    (Who quipped about knowing Doris Day before she had become a virgin? Some wag, Oscar Levant..)

    My last picture for Warners was Romance on the High Seas. It was Doris Day’s first picture; that was before she became a virgin.

    — Oscar Levant, Memoirs of an Amnesiac

    • #25
  26. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Percival (View Comment):
    that was before she became a virgin

    Beautiful quote!

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

    Percival (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    (Who quipped about knowing Doris Day before she had become a virgin? Some wag, Oscar Levant..)

    My last picture for Warners was Romance on the High Seas. It was Doris Day’s first picture; that was before she became a virgin.

    — Oscar Levant, Memoirs of an Amnesiac

    Levant was a really funny guy. One day, I’m gonna do a weekend post for Ricochet of some of his remarks in his forgotten books–they’re perfect for fun for the weekend!

    • #27
  28. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Afternoon Titus,

    Concerning Doris’s foretelling the surgeries in China which return a person to a younger state, the question which puzzles me is what is the age of the audience the producers are going for?  In “The Big Sleep”, Bacall sings “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”, one of those songs with rough lyrics, the movie itself is generally rough, with men and women getting the back of someone’s hand, what was the age this movie was targeted to?  I think when Doris played in the “Pillow Talk” movies, the target audience shaped the content to become so innocent.  I am curious about how the age of the audience has infantilized our culture.

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

    I agree about infantilization. I think it’s typical of Americans who obsess about keeping their children from any suffering–including pet deaths or what have you…–that they would both cause & bemoan infantilization, not taking any responsibility throughout the process.

    I think corporations & big businesses make this worse because they cater to prejudices that are in part moral, so they’re acceptable–but they cater to the immoral part, flying under false colors, as it were. An interest in the moral outlook of one’s children, in the experiences they shape their moral imagination, is serious, good, necessary. A world where utter vulgarity is the same as the public space is in some important way crazy. But so is a world where the complexities of human experience & morality are concealed utterly, & half-forgotten even. They’re somehow tied up together, as sentimentality is to cruelty…

    • #29
  30. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    I agree about infantilization. I think it’s typical of Americans who obsess about keeping their children from any suffering–including pet deaths or what have you…–that they would both cause & bemoan infantilization, not taking any responsibility throughout the process.

    That would certainly explain the changes from the 1930’s and 1940’s to the world of the 1950’s and 1960’s in which the Baby Boomers were kids and teenagers.

    • #30

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