THE DOZENS: TWELVE ESSENTIAL ELLA FITZGERALD PERFORMANCES by Stuart Nicholson

Ella Fitzgerald lived to sing. Nothing in her life meant as much to her. Yet she never had a music lesson in her life and never bothered to warm up before a show. Arguably the most famous jazz musician of all time, her drawing power was phenomenal. During her lifetime, whatever the prevailing musical fashion, the mere mention of her name was enough to sell out any major concert hall in the world.



               Ella Fitzgerald,  artwork by Suzanne Cerny


Acknowledged as a legend in her own lifetime by the likes of Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, she was showered with awards, medals, and honorary degrees that filled a whole room in her house. Yet if her contemporary Billie Holiday (they were born within two years of each other) was both victim and accuser, then Ella Fitzgerald was the puritan in Bohemia. She respected the composer and lyric writer’s intentions with honesty and humanity rather than lyrical realism, and was primarily concerned with the musical dimensions of a song.

At her peak, her voice had fewer limitations of range or tonal quality (listen to her imitations of a bowed bass solo, or of Louis Armstrong, and then her soaring scat, to take its measure) than almost any other jazz or popular singer. While her singing could be the epitome of taste married to a superb technique, it often left little room for a chink of light that might allow a glimpse of her soul, as with a Holiday, a Piaf or a Dinah Washington. But although she seldom revealed anything of the inner woman, she also remained herself – her naïveté and lack of affectation were there for all to see, but so too was the joy of music making. It was a joy she felt compelled to share with others and went to the very essence of her art.


Ella Fitzgerald (with Chick Webb): A-Tisket, A-Tasket

Track

A-Tisket, A-Tasket

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals) and Chick Webb (drums)

CD

Ken Burns Jazz: Ella Fitzgerald (Verve 549087)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Chick Webb (drums),

Mario Bauza, Bobby Stark, Taft Jordan (trumpets), Nat Story, Sandy Williams, George Matthews (trombones), Garvin Bushell (clarinet, alto & baritone saxes), Louis Jordan (alto sax), Teddy McRae, Wayman Carver (tenor saxes), Tommy Fulford (piano), Bobby Johnson (guitar), Beverly Peer (bass)

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Composed by Al Feldman and Ella Fitzgerald. Arranged by Al Feldman (aka Van Alexander)

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Recorded: New York, May 2, 1938

Albumcoverkenburnsjazz-ellafitzgerald

Rating: 75/100 (learn more)

Endearing as this performance is by Ella, it also says a lot about her as an artist. For her the song is fun. When she performed it in the 1942 Abbot and Costello movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy, it gave a unique insight into her performing persona. Difficult – impossible even – to imagine Lady Day, who was into grown-up emotions such as the end of a love affair or the discovery of infidelity, performing in this way. Yet Ella was into joy, sunshine and happiness and getting hung up on their stylistic differences somehow misses the point. Rather like a film negative, the light and the dark images perfectly compliment each other, both essential components in the overall picture. Joy too has a right to be expressed in jazz, and nobody did it better than Ella.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald (with Chick Webb): Chew, Chew, Chew

Track

Chew, Chew, Chew

Group

Chick Webb and his Orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald

CD

Chick Webb and his Savoy Ballroom Orchestra: The King of the Drums (Tax 3706)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Chick Webb (drums),

Mario Bauza, Taft Jordan, Bobby Stark (trumpets); George Matthews, Nat Story, Sandy Williams (trombones); Garvin Bushell (clarinet, alto saxophone); Louis Jordan (alto saxophone); Wayman Carver, Teddy McRae (tenor saxophones); Tommy Fulford (pain); Bobby Johnson (guitar); Beverly Peer (bass)

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Composed by Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald

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Recorded: The Southland Café, Boston, May 4, 1939

Albumcoverchickwebbella

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

During her performances with Chick Webb’s orchestra, Ella not only served as featured vocalist, but also stood out as the band’s cheerleader. She is audibly in evidence on live recordings, encouraging soloists and in general egging the band on to greater deeds of derring-do. Rhythm was king in the Webb orchestra, and this kind of nightly character-forming experience helped shape both Ella’s style, and, as Mel Tormé has pointed out, her “instrumental” approach to scat. “Chew, Chew, Chew,” like “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” is another novelty penned by Ella. Cashing-in on the runaway success of “Tasket,” she celebrates the merits of bubble gum. The lyrics may be forgettable, but Ella’s powerful rhythmic approach is not. Band and singer are as one riffing this tune, and it’s easy to see why she was such a success with Webb; even the radio announcer is already calling her “The First Lady of Song,” an epithet that would stick for the rest of her life.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots: Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

Track

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

Group

Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots

CD

The Legendary Decca Recordings (GRP 46482)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals),

The Ink Spots (Bill Kenny, Charles Fuqua, Deek Watson, Happy Jones) and unknown accompaniment

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Composed by Doris Fisher & Allan Roberts

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Recorded: New York, August 30, 1944

Albumcoverellalegendarydecca

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

The inspiration of combining the Ink Spots and Ella came from producer Milt Gabler, who had seen these artists headline a tour of the theater circuit. Although they never performed together live, Gabler thought they should, later saying, “We had Bill Kenny do the ballad and Ella swing the jazz version on the same tune. The Ink Spots were a formula presentation…having it straight and a swinging tempo. They weren’t really duet records, they were two choruses different ways, contrast.” Released in November 1944, this record went straight onto the charts and stayed there for 17 weeks, going on to become a million seller. “Ella really tears this one apart,” said Down Beat magazine at the time. “She’s never done anything like it, and her vocal is actually thrilling.” It rescued Ella’s career, which since 1941had been sliding with just one chart success (“Cow Cow Boogie”).

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald: Flying Home

Track

Flying Home

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)

CD

The Legendary Decca Recordings (GRP 46482)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals),

with Vic Schoen and His Orchestra

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Composed by Benny Goodman & Lionel Hampton

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Recorded: October 4, 1945

Albumcoverellalegendarydecca

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Recorded in 1945, but unreleased until 1947, “Flying Home” is a key track in Ella’s huge discography and a watershed in her career. It was the product of over two years' experimentation during live performances in extending the boundaries of jazz singing, and remains among the finest jazz vocal records of all time. In it she harnessed scat singing for its musical potential rather than exploring any subjective dimension of her singing. While on the one hand it was rightly hailed as a vocal tour-de-force, on the other it showed, for those who cared to listen, that as early as 1945 she was already aligning herself with the new thing in music: bebop. It would turn out to be one of the most important career moves of her life, but one that would take a couple of years to be fully realized.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald: Someone to Watch Over Me

Track

Someone to Watch Over Me

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)

CD

The Legendary Decca Recordings (GRP 46482)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Ellis Larkins (piano).

Composed by George & Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: New York, September 12, 1950

Albumcoverellalegendarydecca

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

In truth, any of the eight selections produced by Milt Gabler for the 10-inch Decca album Ella Sings Gershwin would deserve a place in a list of this vocalist's finest performances. Here Ella’s great talent is seriously and conscientiously employed on material with which she was in total sympathy. She sings with confidence and a total lack of artifice, without flights of virtuosity or exercises in complexity. She does not attempt to impose an emotional dimension on what she sings, yet the success of this number lies in the way in which she sounds detached but at the same time intimate. It is achieved though a combination of impeccable diction (in which she took great pride), the clarity and purity of her voice, and precise intonation. But equally important is the creative duality between singer and accompanist. While Ella shapes the song with inch-perfect precision, Ellis Larkin’s accompaniment frames her talent to perfection, so that from wherever this song is heard, it sounds its best.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald: Smooth Sailing

Track

Smooth Sailing

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)

CD

The Legendary Decca Recordings (GRP 46482)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Hank Jones (piano), Everett Barksdale (guitar), Arnold Fishkin (bass),

Bill Doggett (organ), Johnny Blowers (drums), and the Ray Charles Singers

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Composed by Arnett Cobb

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Recorded: New York, June 26, 1951

Albumcoverellalegendarydecca

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Ella as one of the founders of rock 'n' roll? Not as crazy as it sounds after listening to this wordless 12-bar scat-and-riff feature from 1951. Since 1949 Ella had become a regular feature with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, effectively a touring jam session presenting some of the greatest musicians in jazz. Ella was the ipso facto star of the show, with her own prime spot as well as appearing at the climax of the show during the final jam session to swap choruses with instrumentalists such as Charlie Parker or Coleman Hawkins. Her effortless mastery of scat, sharpened and honed in such exacting circumstances, is apparent on “Smooth Sailing,” done without any rehearsal. A strong gospel-style backbeat gives the performance its swinging groove, with call-and-response patterns between voice and instruments. But listen to Ella’s free association scat, from which one phrase is lifted intact on Bill Haley’s huge hit “Rock Around the Clock,” and the final riff section, also used by Haley. Coincidence? Not really. “Smooth Sailing” was produced by Milt Gabler, who went on to work with Haley.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald: Every Time We Say Goodbye

Track

Every Time We Say Goodbye

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)

CD

The Cole Porter Songbook, Volume 1 (Verve)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Ted Nash (flute), Bob Cooper (oboe), Paul Smith (piano, celeste), Barney Kessel (guitar), Alvin Stoller (drums),

Robert Marchina, Edgar Lustgarten (cello); Corky Hale (harp), and 12 unknown violins; 2 unknown violas

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Misha Russell (concert master). Arranged and conducted by Buddy Bregman. Composed by Cole Porter

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Recorded: Hollywood, February 7, 1956

Albumcoverellafcps1

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Perhaps the most enduring song from the whole Songbook series, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” from The Cole Porter Songbook dispensed with the big band-isms that provided the backdrop to the series. Instead, the haunting sound of oboe and strings and Ella’s liquid vocal give this piece its timeless feel. Ella could never quite understand why it was one of her most popular songs with European audiences, and to this day it is regularly played on European radio stations – not least by the BBC. The Cole Porter Songbook set effectively launched Norman Granz’s Verve label, the famous “4000” series initiated with Ella in mind. Its subsequent success when released in 1956 – it went straight to 15 on the Billboard chart, and Down Beat listed it as the second best-selling jazz album – ensured Verve's financial viability and ultimately went on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time, remaining almost constantly in print since its release.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald: St. Louis Blues

Track

St. Louis Blues

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)

CD

Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert (Verve 835 454)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Lou Levy (piano), Max Bennett (bass), Gus Johnson (drums).

Composed by W.C. Handy

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Recorded: Rome, April 25, 1958

Albumcoverefitzgeraldellarome

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

While the majority of Ella’s discography was recorded in the studio, live recordings provide the most vivid studies of her art. In front of an audience with just piano, bass and drums, she came alive; it was what she lived for, and where the essence of her art was to be found. There is probably no finer example of this than her performance of “St. Louis Blues,” recorded in front of an enthusiastic audience at the Teatro Sistina in Rome. Part of a concert that lay undiscovered in Polygram’s vaults until it was released for the first time in 1988, it is memorable not only because Ella is in superb voice but also because the backing trio of Lou Levy, Max Bennett and Gus Johnson had, through regular performance, become a superbly cohesive unit. “St. Louis Blues” actually opened the concert that night, a stunning virtuoso tour-de-force whose whirlwind tempo, intensity and length (almost six minutes) could easily have been used to climax her set, rather than open it! The melodic construction of her scat singing is exemplary (including the aside “People are wondering what I’m singing. Believe it or not it’s ‘St. Louis Blues’”). This track ranks among the finest examples of vocal jazz, as Lou Levy reflected in 1990: “It was just great! So much spirit and drive on it. You could never get it if you went into the studio. If you tried in the studio it would be one chance in a million.”

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald: How Long Has This Been Going On?

Track

How Long Has This Been Going On?

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)

CD

The Complete Songbooks (Verve)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Don Fagerquist (trumpet), Bob Cooper (tenor sax), Lou Levy (piano), Alvin Stoller (drums),

and an unidentified orchestra arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle

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Composed by George and Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: Los Angeles, January – March 1959

Albumcoverellafitzgeraldcompletesongbooks

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

When Ella addressed the monumental Songbook series – part jazz lieder, part cocktail music – not only did she re-validate American popular songs for 1950s and '60s audiences brought up in the Swing Era; but she made her statements stick, enhancing her status as an artist beyond her wildest dreams. And in return, when she sang those songs, they re-validated her and remain her lasting achievement. Many consider the Gershwin collection to be the finest of the Songbook series, praising it for its scale, its ambition, or both. It went immediately onto the Billboard chart as soon as it was released, a major feat for a 5-LP set plus an EP. However, the enduring popularity of this set comes with a caveat, since Ella only had a passing acquaintance with the lesser known Gershwin material (such as “My Cousin in Milwaukee” or “Stiff Upper Lip”) until she walked into the studio. Such circumstances could only increase her emotional distance from the composer’s and lyricist’s intentions. Yet on numbers she did know, such as “How Long Has This Been Going On?” – a minor hit for Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman in the early 1940s – Ella comes close to virtually defining the Gershwin oeuvre.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald: Mack the Knife

Track

Mack the Knife

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)

CD

Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife (Verve 825 670)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Paul Smith (piano), Jim Hall (guitar), Gus Johnson (drums),

Wilfred Middlebrooks (bass)

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Composed by Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht & Marc Blitzstein

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Recorded: Berlin, February 13, 1960

Albumcoverellainberlin

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

“Mack the Knife” is from Ella in Berlin, one of her finest live albums. It became one of her biggest sellers and won two Grammy Awards – one for “Best Album by a Female Singer” and the other for “Best Song by a Female Singer” for “Mack the Knife.” There is an exuberance and joy in this performance that is infectious and compelling, a side of Ella seldom displayed in the recording studio. Towards the end of the 1950s and in the early '60s, Ella was at the peak of her abilities, and the warm response of the 2,000-person crowd audibly lifts her into the zone. There is a powerful sense of swing in her vocal line, almost overwhelming in its power, yet part of the charm of the piece is when she forgets the lyrics and, completely unfazed, improvises new ones on the spot – a superb example of her thinking on her feet. Incidentally, she does not miss the opportunity of doing her impression of Louis Armstrong, for years a proven crowd pleaser. It gave audiences an indefinable feel-good factor that added significantly to her in-person charm, and it can still be felt, decades later, on compact disc.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Duke Ellington with Ella Fitzgerald: Imagine My Frustration

Track

Imagine My Frustration

Group

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, featuring Ella Fitzgerald

CD

Ella Fitzgerald Duke Ellington: The Stockholm Concert, 1966

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Musicians:

Duke Ellington (piano), Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Cootie Williams (trumpet), Herbie Jones (trumpet), Cat Anderson (trumpet), Mercer Ellington (trumpet), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Buster Cooper (trombone), Chuck Connors (trombone), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Russell Procope (clarinet), Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet), Paul Gonsalves (tenor sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Sam Woodyard (drums),

John Lamb (bass)

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Composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

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Albumcoverellingtonellastockholm

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

The appearances together in 1966-67 of Ella with the Duke Ellington Orchestra quickly assumed almost legendary proportions. What was remarkable about her performances with Ellington’s band is the way she commanded the complete respect of Ellington’s often laid-back sidemen. Even on CD, you can sense the electricity in the air as Ella comes onstage, and they respond with a superb performance. “Imagine My Frustration” was the opening song of this Stockholm concert, and from the start Ella truly wails in this passionate and powerful performance. It’s another example of how she responded to the live situation: with Duke’s driving ostinato in the background and the band taking flight, Ella’s adrenaline level soars, and with it the listener’s. Singing at a volume to compete with the band – something like that would never happen in the controlled environment of the studios – this is a shouting, roaring performance as she takes on, and becomes part of, the Ellington instrument. As Norman Granz somewhat understatedly points out in the liner notes, “I especially call your attention to how hard Ella could swing when she puts her mind to it.”

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


Ella Fitzgerald: I Loves You Porgy

Track

I Loves You Porgy

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals)

CD

Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert (Verve 835 454)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Lou Levy (piano), Max Bennett (bass), Gus Johnson (drums).

Composed by George & Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: Rome, April 25, 1958

Albumcoverefitzgeraldellarome

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Ella’s voice may have been the perfect instrument to express joy, but she was also a consummate ballad singer. However, while the Songbooks with their big band or string accompaniments defined Ella to a broad middle-of-the-road audience, her ability to sing virtually anything on demand often created a certain emotional distance from her material. However, in live performance she would sing her heart out, and the Rome version of “I Loves You Porgy” ranks among the very best of Ella Fitzgerald on record. It is a striking example of her getting inside a song’s meaning, something she was not normally noted for. It is almost as if she has scrubbed the song clean of any emotional thumbprints other singers may have left. In holding the song up to the light, it gleams anew, as if being sung for the first time. Her singing, with its precise enunciation, pitch and breath control, her subtle use of tonal inflection and tasteful use of vibrato, especially terminal vibrato, is exemplary, but there is also an emotional engagement with the material here that was seldom glimpsed in the studio.

Reviewer: Stuart Nicholson


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See Stuart Nicholson’s biographical essay on Ella Fitzgerald in jazz.com’s Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians.