Ella Fitzgerald: An Appreciation

Last week, the singer Ella Fitzgerald would have been 90. More than a dozen of Los Angeles’s finest musicians and singers, led by the renowned vocalist Barbara Morrison, congregated at the Musician’s Union in Hollywood to honor a woman who has touched and inspired everyone with functional ears.

We heterogeneous Americans usually gather in large groups because of our political leanings or religious faith or athletic interests, sharing with other true believers our passion for a cause or a deity or a home-run hitter. How heartening to be in an auditorium filled with men and women of disparate ages and colors and classes — and all the other transitory stuff that normally divides us — united in love for a portly woman from Newport News, Virginia who swung harder than Barry Bonds and created beauty every time she opened her mouth. 

Ella Fitzgerald was musical. She didn’t read music or understand music theory or play an instrument. But every sound she made, every word she uttered, every song she sang was suffused with the two pillars of 20th Century American music: soul and swing. Her voice was gorgeous and virtually inimitable. Nobody sounded like her.

The clarity of her tone and the effortlessness of her vocal production gave some people the spurious impression that she wasn’t edgy or adventurous enough to be a jazz pioneer. She was. Ella just made it all seem too easy. She was to vocal jazz what Charlie Parker was to the alto sax: a bebopping, wildly improvisational explorer who discovered notes that hadn’t been heard before and made them sound as though they were utterly inevitable. Whereas Bird was the embodiment of melancholy, Ella was the pure distillation of joy.

Ira Gershwin once said that he didn’t realize how great his and his brother George’s songs were until he heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.

All of us who are jazz singers can remember the first time we heard Ella do her thing. One’s life is never the same after such an epiphany. Pop music suddenly seems so mundane, so enervated. The “Great American Songbook” is a treasure chest, and Ella Fitzgerald its greatest exponent.

Ella was blessed with rare expressive gifts. The rest of us are blessed that she shared them.

Happy birthday, Ella! We’re all still listening.

You may also like...