[Dixielandjazz] Ella Fitzgerald reviewed - Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, June 27, 2016
rsr at ringwald.com
Thu Jun 30 01:14:41 EDT 2016
Fitzgerald's "Ella in Berlin" a Summation of Singer at Artistic Peak
by Rashod Ollison
Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, June 27, 2016
On Saturday evening, Feb. 13, 1960, Ella Fitzgerald, neatly coiffed and regal in a custom gown, strolled onstage before an ecstatic crowd. She had long become accustomed to nights like this, ever since her 1939 hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” made her a pop sensation.
But the concert on this particular night at the Deutschlandhalle arena in Berlin would solidify what most discerning music lovers already knew, that the unassuming woman from Newport News, one of the most celebrated singers around at the dawn of the 1960s, also was one of the most inventive jazz musicians to never play an actual instrument. Her voice like a clarion trumpet, Fitzgerald dazzled the 12,000 in attendance at the German arena with breathless melodic and rhythmic improvisation. The resulting album, “Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin,” would go on to sell a million copies, win at the third annual Grammy Awards, and become a testament to Fitzgerald’s genius.
A remastered vinyl version was just released in recognition of the 60th anniversary of Verve Records, the legendary label founded by the ever-progressive Norman Granz, Fitzgerald’s manager and producer. It’s the kind of brilliant, off-the-cuff performance Granz had been trying for a few years to capture on wax. But it almost didn’t happen.
Granz founded Verve Records primarily to capture Fitzgerald’s expanding artistry in a variety of settings, from lush studio orchestras to intimate combos. His timing was ideal as the advent of the LP became more commercially viable. Frank Sinatra at Capitol Records was among the first pop stars of the day to exploit the format with satisfying artistic results. His 1955 release “In the Wee Small Hours”was among the first concept albums in pop and became a smash, transitioning him from a teen-driven singles act to a serious album artiste. Granz accomplished the same for Fitzgerald at Verve the next year, with the release of “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook,” a double LP set. It was the inaugural release in Granz’s extravagantly produced Songbook series, where he and Fitzgerald devoted albums, some including up to five LPs in a single set, to America’s greatest composers. They included Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern and others.
By the mid 1950s, Fitzgerald was primed for such audacious artistic endeavors. She was in her late 30s and had been performing and recording for two decades. Her silvery voice, with its perfect pitch, crystal intonation and buoyant rhythmic acuity, had mellowed beautifully. The coy girlishness and irrepressible cheeriness of Fitzgerald’s style, qualities that remained largely unchanged for most of her six decades of performing, were better manipulated during the Eisenhower era when she became a huge star.
Fitzgerald was one of few black women singers so visible and commercially bankable at the time. Ravaged by years of hard living, Billie Holiday, whom Fitzgerald adored, would be dead by the summer of ’59. Dinah Washington, “Queen of the Jukeboxes,” was a huge star mostly on the black side of the tracks with occasional crossover success. Sarah Vaughan was a major figure in jazz, scoring sporadic pop hits, but critics found her often mannered approach something of an acquired taste.
Fitzgerald, however, had been since the beginning of her career an unequivocal pop star. Swing and bebop were the “pop” styles of her day, and she was at the forefront of both. With its forever-young sound and feel, her approach still defines the very essence of pop vocalization. The fact that such a sound came from a large black woman, the antithesis of the mainstream’s idea of glamour, especially in the 1950s, was, in a way, liberating.
Fitzgerald was never distracted by demands to be a sexed-up fantasy, something that dogged such performers as Marilyn Monroe, a friend of Fitzgerald’s, and the young Abbey Lincoln. With a sympathetic and well-connected manager and producer like Granz behind her, Fitzgerald concentrated on her voice, the one thing in which the notoriously modest artist was supremely confident. The joy that came from such an unlimited artistic license shone in everything she sang. When Fitzgerald prepared to hit the stage at the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin in the winter of 1960, she was rightfully known as the “First Lady of Song,” queen of pristine. She also had grown relaxed enough on stage and certainly had the musical chops to turn what could have been an embarrassing flub into high art.
The Paul Smith Quartet backed Fitzgerald that night with aggressive but unobtrusive accompaniment. She opened with “That Old Black Magic” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” But if you bought the live album at, say, the Groove on Church Street in 1960, you would not have heard those tunes. They were left off and released some 30 years later on a CD reissue. The original LP begins with the third selection of the evening, a gliding, brightly swinging version of “Gone With the Wind.” Fitzgerald takes a breather with the ballad “Misty.” A definitive, sweepingly orchestral version produced by a young Quincy Jones and recorded by Sarah Vaughan had become a hit two years before. Fitzgerald’s rendition suggests the sensuality of Vaughan’s version, a sexiness Fitzgerald rarely displayed. She playfully extends that on the breathy intro to “Too Darn Hot,” the audience chuckling, before she’s off and swinging mightily.
The album is best remembered for two performances: an impromptu version of “Mack the Knife” and a breakneck, virtuosic scat take on “How High the Moon.” The former was, at the time, a huge global single for Bobby Darin. Fitzgerald attempts it at the Berlin show -- and forgets the words. She then improvises a Louis Armstrong impression and makes up her own words, sounding amused and inspired by it all. The song was later released as a single, which won a Grammy for best female vocal performance, and drove sales for the album.
“How High the Moon” is the LP’s longest track at nearly seven minutes. Fitzgerald is a scat machine, quoting Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” and blowing through chord changes with seemingly endless inventive and playful rhythmic ideas. With the exception of maybe Betty Carter’s “Sounds (Movin’ On)” from 1979, few jazz singers have ever come close to matching Fitzgerald’s dexterity here.
Granz was at the show that night and was thrilled with his star client’s triumphant performance, the kind he had wanted to release on a live album. But he hadn’t brought any recording equipment. He panicked before realizing that he’d allowed West Germany Radio to record the show for broadcast purposes. The station’s tape was Granz’s safety net and provided a masterpiece.
“Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin” is a beautiful summation of Fitzgerald at her artistic peak. By then, the woman from Newport News, whose desperately impoverished childhood had been one trauma after another, was a superstar. She lived with her adopted son in an elegant, 13-room home in Beverly Hills, a pictorial of which made it onto the pages of Ebony magazine about a year after the Berlin performance. Fitzgerald never became a tragic pop myth. She steered clear of the drugs and alcohol that sidetracked and ruined so many of her peers. She sang until diabetes robbed her of her sight, her legs and ultimately her life on June 15, 1996.
Despite a hard-knock and often lonely journey, her art radiated boundless joy and inclusiveness. In her personal life, she was quietly generous to disadvantaged children, doing what she could to open new paths so that they wouldn’t know the horrors she’d survived. Fitzgerald is a revolutionary American tale if there ever was one. Her music remains a reflection of that. –30-
Bob Ringwald piano, Solo, Duo, Trio, Quartet, Quintet
Fulton Street Jazz Band (Dixieland/Swing)
Amateur (ham) Radio Station K6YBV
Walking can add minutes to your life. This enables you at 85 years old
to spend an additional 5 months in a nursing home at $7000 per month...
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