A debate has raged for decades as to what qualities a vocalist must have to be accepted as a jazz singer. There are those improvising artists who obviously fit the bill, followed by others like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Nina Simone, all displaying jazz sensitivities but at the same time posing questions of definition. In the case of Ella Fitzgerald, few would argue that her credentials placed her firmly in the jazz camp, having the ability to swing and scat with some alacrity combined with an innate understanding of a lyric. Having made such an observation, we should never lose sight of her more general popularity, which she attained for the most part without compromising her artistic standing.
Born into a poor background in 1917, Ella was really on her uppers when she entered a talent contest in 1934 at New York’s famous Apollo Theatre, her resulting win eventually bringing her to bandleader Chick Webb’s attention via the persistence of the much respected Benny Carter. Against his better judgement Webb allowed Ella to sing with his band, and received a pleasant surprise when the singer got a positive reaction from the audience on her debut appearance.
Webb soon realised what a gem he had acquired, using the singer’s talents increasingly at recordings and on live gigs. In 1938, Ella had a major hit with ‘A-Tisket, A Tasket’, followed by ‘Undecided’, although in many respects she still played the role of a typical band singer. She was expected to perform her fair share of novelty songs, a necessary constituent of the era.
When Webb died in 1939, Ella fronted the band for another two years before its eventual break-up, but by then her popularity allowed her to take up a solo career. The recordings she made for the Decca label in the Forties contained a high percentage of hits, including those with the Delta Rhythm Boys and Louis Jordan.
In 1946 Norman Granz, a man destined to shape her career in the decades to come, became her manager, but around this time Ella’s style took a shift in direction as she toured with Dizzy Gillespie. The outcome was her adoption of scat singing, a feature of so many dates in the coming years. From there on in, the ‘jazz singer’ tag took on true credibility.
Ella now had a firm foot in both the jazz and popular-music camps, her quality performances being the criteria for her success. In so many respects her ‘Songbook’ albums for Granz’s Verve label, the recording of which commenced in 1956, are regarded as the pinnacle of Ella’s career but in no way could they be regarded as having much jazz content. Nonetheless, these were received with great enthusiasm, by music lovers.
When recording the ‘Ella Swings Lightly’ disc in late 1958, the singer had reached the point where she could do little wrong in the eyes of the public, and Marty Paich’s Dektette, packed with top quality West Coast musicians, supplied the kind of backing she relished. The balance of familiar standards with not-so-obvious inclusions gives the listener an ideal insight into what a great craftsman the singer had become.
Three years later, Ella completed the ‘Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson’ release, having rekindled an association with arranger Nelson Riddle that went back to the ‘Songbook’ days. She could perform to the height of her powers whether the backing came from a trio or large ensemble, but the singer in front of the latter was always a compelling experience; the ‘With Nelson’ tracks totally fit the bill. Later albums for Verve with Count Basie and Duke Ellington were further proof of how stimulating the singer found the big-band setting.
In the second half of the Sixties it was thought an entry into the contemporary popular music market would not go amiss, but anyone listening to Ella’s versions of ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ and ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ knew immediately this direction could not possibly be for her. This dilemma over suitable material was resolved when Granz set up his Pablo label in the early Seventies; this released a whole raft of jazz records, many under the Fitzgerald name.
Those sessions Ella recorded for Granz’s second label had her in perfect harmony with what almost amounted to a repertory company of fine musicians including Tommy Flanagan, Joe Pass and Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison. The songs were essentially of the standard variety, a comfortable option for the singer as the voice inevitably started to show the odd crack around the edges.
Ella’s poor health greatly affected her performances in her later years behind the microphone, but this is not something to dwell on. Let us revel in the glory of the Ella Fitzgerald we hear on these two discs.