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Ella Fitzgerald

Each April, the story and history of jazz is celebrated in the U.S. During this month, concerts are held, lectures given and documentary films are shown to draw greater public attention to the rich and extraordinary history of jazz. This period is known as Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) and it is a time designated for an annual spotlight on jazz as both an historical and living treasure. JAM is intended to generate more interest and encourage people of all ages to participate in jazz awareness by attending concerts, reading books on jazz and listen to jazz on the radio or with friends.

JAM was created by John Edward Hasse PhD, curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. It is geared towards creating an understanding of Jazz as an original American art form. In previous writings, we chronicled the contributions of African Americans to the development and promotion of jazz and this year, JAM will celebrate the cultural and social legacies of women in jazz. Notable international sweethearts of rhythm such as Mary Lou Williams, Ella Fitzerald and Lena Horne are being honored with the spotlight beaming on Mary Lou Williams whose portrait is featured on the JAM 2011 poster. The first year of JAM was in 2001 and it was initially funded by the Ella Fitzerald Charitable Foundation.

Here in The Gambia, the Senegambia Jazz Society will also observe JAM 2011 with a series of weekly events at the Djeliba Hotel and other venues in the greater Banjul area. The SGJS was formed in 2009 and we are working to make it more visible and active as we progress. As we honor women in jazz, let us take a brief look at the life of Mary Lou Williams and a more detailed exposure of Ella Fitzerald. Mary Lou Williams (The first lady of jazz) was a jazz pianist, composer and arranger. She was born on May 8th 1910 and died on May 28th 1981. She was self taught on the piano at an early age and made her first public performance at the age of six. She is of Georgian origin but grew up in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where she was popularly known as the little piano girl from East Liberty, which was a neighborhood in Pittsburg. Mary Lou wrote hundreds of songs for band leaders Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and was friend and mentor to jazz greats Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillesjie. Her legacy is a rich one and the recognition being given to her is well conceived and well deserved.

Ella Fitzerald (The first lady of song) was an American jazz and song vocalist. She was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25th 1917, grew up in Yonkers, New York and died in Bererly Hills, California on June 15th 1996. Ella was note for her “purity of tone, impeccable diction and a “horn like” improvisational ability especially in her scat singing.” While singing with Dizzy Gillespie, she once remarked that she just tried to do with her voice what she heard the horns doing. As a youngster, she wanted to be a dancer, but also enjoyed listening to jazz recordings by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and the Baswell Sisters. She was fascinated by the voice of the lead singer of Boswell Sisters – Connie Boswell. It was her mother who introduced her to the music of Connie Boswell and Ella confessed to trying very hard to sound like her. She made her singing debut at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, N.Y on November 17th 1934. It was at an event billed as “Amateur Nights” which was staged weekly to give young artists a chance to compete and showcase their various artistic talents. Ella wanted to go on stage and dance, but was intimidated by a local dance duo called the Edwards sisters, so she decided to sing. She sang two of Connie Boswell’s songs and won the first prize of $25.00.

In 1935 she met drummer and band leader chick Webb and was given a chance to sing with Webb’s orchestra. She began singing regularly with Webb’s band at the Savoy Ball room in Harlem and recorded several hit songs with them during the next few years. In June 1939, Webb died and his band was renamed “Ella Fitzerald and her Famous Orchestra”. She became the bandleader and recorded over one hundred songs with them. In 1942 she left the band and embarked on a solo career with Decca Records. Her manager at Decca was a guy called Milt Gabler and it was during this time that he met jazz impresario Norman Granz. Granz would later become her manager and she appeared regularly at the Philharmonic in New York City. The later part of the forties was a period of decline for touring big bands as a major change in jazz was unfolding.

The advent of bebop let to new developments in Ella’s vocal style and it was in this period that she started seat singing. In 1945 she made her first seat recording and the New York Times described her as the most influential jazz vocalist at that time. Her technique was so unique and dazzling with inventiveness that for a moment, she stole the spotlight of scat singing from the master himself – Louis Armstrong. She would later try to diversify and return back to singing with lyrics. In 1950, she did a series of duets with Ellis Larkins and recorded an album called – Ella sings Gershwin. Ella continued playing with Norman Granz and when she left Decca Records, Granz created Verve Records around her and recorded some of her fest music starting with the Cole Porter Songbook and later the Great American Songbook. She described this period as a turning point in her life and observed that she had gotten to a point where all she was singing was bebop, but was now realizing that there was more to music than bebop.

Still working with Norman Granz, Ella went on to play and record with the great bandleader Duke Ellington and together, they wrote another songbook entitled Ella Fitzerald sings the Duke Ellington Songbook. The songbook series became her most acclaimed and commercially successful work and was considered by many as her “most significant offering to American culture. In 1972 and 1983, Ella recorded albums exclusively devoted to the songs of Porter and Gershwin and would later record another album devoted to a single composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. While recording the songbooks she toured extensively in the United States and internationally and in the mid fifties, she became the first African American to perform at the exclusive night spot Mocambo. This was made possible after Marilyn Monroe lobbied the owner for the booking.

She also recorded several live albums on Verve, Ella at the opera house, Ella in Rome Twelve Nights in Hollywood and Ella in Berlin were all highly regarded by critics, and she won a granny award with the song “Mack the Knife” in which she forgets the lyrics, but improvises brilliantly to compensate. Ella had an extraordinary vocal range and her most amazing asset is the very sound of her voice. Her Harmonic sensibility was special and she was endlessly inventive.

In 1963 Verve Records was sold to MGM and the new owners failed to renew her contract, so in the next few years she flitted with Atlantic, Capitol and Reprise Records. In 1972 Granz started Pablo Records and again Ella was busy and recorded twenty albums for the label. The album Ella in London recorded love in 1974 featured pianist Tommy Flanaganm Joe Pass on Guitar, Keter Betts on Bass and Bobby Durham on drums and was considered as one of her best album ever. As the years passed, Ella was plagued by health problems which limited her work. She made her last recording in 1991 and her last public performance in 1993. We hope you have enjoyed this little piece, as we intend to feature other women in jazz in our next contribution.

Mahtarr E Njai

You can check out Ella's work at the African American Eclectic Video Archive


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