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Inspired Collections Celebrate the Many Sides of Ella

April 25, 1993|LEONARD FEATHER | Leonard Feather is The Times' jazz critic.


"75th Birthday Celebration"


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"First Lady of Song"


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Do you remember when you were first exposed to the magic sound that is Ella Fitzgerald?

Was it in the 1980s, when you turned on the radio and heard her Gershwin album with Andre Previn? Could it have been at one of her triumphant concerts in the '70s with Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass? Or in the '60s when she co-starred on a Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim TV show?

It might have been a movie--"Pete Kelly's Blues" in the '50s; or possibly you caught her on tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic, along with her then-husband, bassist Ray Brown. If you are in Ella's age bracket--today marks her 75th birthday--you may even have caught up with her as the teen-aged vocalist with Chick Webb's band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.

Her professional career goes back 48 years. She made her official debut in February, 1935, when a first prize at the Harlem Opera House won her a week's work with Tiny Bradshaw's band. Soon after, she joined Webb, the legendary drummer, at a starting salary of $12.50 a week.

She has evolved from novelty singer (her adaptation of a nursery rhyme, "A Tisket a Tasket," became her first hit with Webb in 1938) to ballad singer to scat specialist, and has ventured in every aspect of the vocal jazz art. Still performing now and then despite frail health, she remains the quintessential purveyor of beauty, humor and spontaneity.

The first of the two celebratory albums listed above covers the period from "A Tisket" through 1955, when her manager, Norman Granz, signing her to his Verve label, launched her on a "Song Book" series that won her a broader reputation. LP sets of music by Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin established her as a sophisticated interpreter of classic pop music.

The evolution of her talent is easily traced, since eight songs in the Decca package are repeated in Verve versions. Her 1960 "How High the Moon," an eight-minute workout live in Berlin, gives her room to stretch out, displaying a fuller, richer sound and wider range than the 1947 three-minute Decca treatment revealed. Even "A Tisket," decked out with a Latin beat and a string ensemble in the 1957 revival, surpasses the original.

Milt Gabler, her producer at Decca, felt the need to assign such songs as "My Happiness," backed by an a cappella vocal group, the Song Spinners. It didn't swing, and neither did "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall," featuring two garish members of the Ink Spots; but these were big sellers, enabling her also to record what Gabler called "the swinging ones that we love."

The swinging ones led Ella to prominence in countless Down Beat and Esquire magazine polls. Her horn-inspired sound (Dizzy Gillespie was an early influence) was as original and unprecedented on "Lady Be Good" and "Flying Home" as the romantic balladry in "Black Coffee" and "Angel Eyes."

Always shy, yet rarely betraying her diffidence, she expresses the joy of singing, often through humor. In "Stone Cold Dead in the Market" (Decca), she and Louis Jordan assume West Indian accents. On "Mack the Knife" she forgets the words but is unfazed, ad-libbing lyrics about the song's history. "Perdido" similarly finds her making up verses or scatting.

The settings vary enormously; she may be backed by a single musician (Ellis Larkins, Oscar Peterson or Paul Smith at the piano; Barney Kessel or Herb Ellis on guitar), but often there are large orchestras, starting with the Webb band (a dated arrangement and corny tenor sax solo on "Undecided"). Now and then, as in Gordon Jenkins' pompously over-arranged "I Wished on the Moon," Ella had to rise above the setting.

Of the partnerships, the most successful are those with Louis Armstrong (on both albums) and Duke Ellington (Verve). Her "Summertime" with Satchmo on Verve is a masterpiece, from his magnificent opening trumpet chorus through Ella's and Louis' vocals to a finale for which he ad-libs to Ella's melody. "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (Decca) is scarcely less brilliant; here it is Ella who scats while Satch sings the melody.

Two cuts with the Ellington orchestra on Verve are sharply contrasted: On Billy Strayhorn's "Something to Live for" she is in consummate ballad form, but on the live-in-concert final cut, a seven-minute romp on "It Don't Mean a Thing," it's good-humor time again as she shares vocal duties with an uncredited Ray Nance.

Of the 51 tracks on Verve, not a single one can be classified as a dud. The Decca set, with 39 tunes, falters a few times but contains its fair share of durable gems.

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