en-es  Ella Fitzgerald at 100
Ella Fitzgerald at 100.

Comfortable in myriad styles, the Queen of Jazz could—and did—sing everything.

By Will Friedwald, The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2017.

In 1958, Frank Sinatra recorded Billy Strayhorn’s classic torch song “Lush Life”—or, rather, he attempted to. He got about halfway through it when he, in 21st-century speak, “pivoted” and decided, he declared loudly, to “put that one aside for about a year!” Upon hearing the incomplete take, one can only concur with the Chairman’s decision: This is far from a lost Sinatra masterpiece. Rather, it’s a lost Sinatra mistake.

Conversely, Ella Fitzgerald made three important recordings of “Lush Life” in three very different contexts: in 1957 with pianist Oscar Peterson, in 1973 with guitarist Joe Pass, and on a 1968 TV special with Duke Ellington —Strayhorn’s mentor and key collaborator—accompanying her on piano. Or was he? Careful analysis of the videotape by professional pianists reveals that even though it’s Duke on camera, the soundtrack- accompaniment is probably actually being played by her regular accompanist at the time, Jimmy Jones.

Clearly, neither Sinatra nor Ellington was comfortable with “Lush Life”—even though Sinatra had sung many songs that were just as musically difficult (and intimately personal), and Ellington was closer to Strayhorn than anyone; he, of all people, should have been willing and able to play it.

And yet Ella Fitzgerald, whose centennial is being celebrated on the 25th of this month, boldly went where both Sinatra and Ellington feared to tread. Most performers are limited to various kinds of songs, and for the great ones that range is often very vast. We hear about a “Sinatra kind of song,” or a “Judy Garland kind of song.” But you’ve never heard anyone speak of an “Ella Fitzgerald kind of song,” because there’s no such thing. She could and did sing everything.

In 1967-68, Fitzgerald made two of the most misguided albums of her career, “Brighten the Corner” and “Misty Blue,” which can be viewed as ill-advised attempts by the first lady of song to capture the markets of, respectfully, Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles. The first has her doing traditional spirituals like “The Old Rugged Cross”; the second consists of country-and-western songs with lyrics like “this gun don’t care who it shoots.” Clearly, neither one is a Fitzgerald classic, but both are great in their own way—I don’t listen to them as often as I do “Ella in Berlin” or “Lullabies of Birdland,” but when I do play them I find that, to quote another C&W classic, I can’t stop loving them.

When Fitzgerald died in 1996, I was given the task of calling up her friends and musical associates for statements, and when I talked to one of her ex-husbands, bass virtuoso Ray Brown, to my surprise he quoted Bing Crosby’s famous line, “Man, woman, or child, Ella is the most!” I didn’t realize how appropriate that reference was at the time: In the 1930s, Crosby served as pop culture’s ultimate musical everyman, who sang it all—from “Pennies From Heaven” to “Rock of Ages” to “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and everything in between. His successor, the singer who picked up that torch in the postwar era and carried it to the furthest extremes, was Fitzgerald. Producer-manager Norman Granz knew what he was doing when he selected her as the one singer to do the major series of songbook albums by every major American songwriter, and then to do whole albums of scat singing, blues, bossa novas, show tunes—casting a wider net than even such remarkable contemporaries as Sinatra and Charles, and singing it all magnificently.
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Ella Fitzgerald at 100.
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By Will Friedwald, The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2017.
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Rather, it’s a lost Sinatra mistake.
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Or was he?
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She could and did sing everything.
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Ella Fitzgerald at 100.

Comfortable in myriad styles, the Queen of Jazz could—and did—sing everything.

By Will Friedwald, The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2017.

In 1958, Frank Sinatra recorded Billy Strayhorn’s classic torch song “Lush Life”—or, rather, he attempted to. He got about halfway through it when he, in 21st-century speak, “pivoted” and decided, he declared loudly, to “put that one aside for about a year!” Upon hearing the incomplete take, one can only concur with the Chairman’s decision: This is far from a lost Sinatra masterpiece. Rather, it’s a lost Sinatra mistake.

Conversely, Ella Fitzgerald made three important recordings of “Lush Life” in three very different contexts: in 1957 with pianist Oscar Peterson, in 1973 with guitarist Joe Pass, and on a 1968 TV special with Duke Ellington —Strayhorn’s mentor and key collaborator—accompanying her on piano. Or was he? Careful analysis of the videotape by professional pianists reveals that even though it’s Duke on camera, the soundtrack-
accompaniment is probably actually being played by her regular accompanist at the time, Jimmy Jones.

Clearly, neither Sinatra nor Ellington was comfortable with “Lush Life”—even though Sinatra had sung many songs that were just as musically difficult (and intimately personal), and Ellington was closer to Strayhorn than anyone; he, of all people, should have been willing and able to play it.

And yet Ella Fitzgerald, whose centennial is being celebrated on the 25th of this month, boldly went where both Sinatra and Ellington feared to tread. Most performers are limited to various kinds of songs, and for the great ones that range is often very vast. We hear about a “Sinatra kind of song,” or a “Judy Garland kind of song.” But you’ve never heard anyone speak of an “Ella Fitzgerald kind of song,” because there’s no such thing. She could and did sing everything.

In 1967-68, Fitzgerald made two of the most misguided albums of her career, “Brighten the Corner” and “Misty Blue,” which can be viewed as ill-advised attempts by the first lady of song to capture the markets of, respectfully, Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles. The first has her doing traditional spirituals like “The Old Rugged Cross”; the second consists of country-and-western songs with lyrics like “this gun don’t care who it shoots.” Clearly, neither one is a Fitzgerald classic, but both are great in their own way—I don’t listen to them as often as I do “Ella in Berlin” or “Lullabies of Birdland,” but when I do play them I find that, to quote another C&W classic, I can’t stop loving them.

When Fitzgerald died in 1996, I was given the task of calling up her friends and musical associates for statements, and when I talked to one of her ex-husbands, bass virtuoso Ray Brown, to my surprise he quoted Bing Crosby’s famous line, “Man, woman, or child, Ella is the most!” I didn’t realize how appropriate that reference was at the time: In the 1930s, Crosby served as pop culture’s ultimate musical everyman, who sang it all—from “Pennies From Heaven” to “Rock of Ages” to “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and everything in between. His successor, the singer who picked up that torch in the postwar era and carried it to the furthest extremes, was Fitzgerald. Producer-manager Norman Granz knew what he was doing when he selected her as the one singer to do the major series of songbook albums by every major American songwriter, and then to do whole albums of scat singing, blues, bossa novas, show tunes—casting a wider net than even such remarkable contemporaries as Sinatra and Charles, and singing it all magnificently.