Get Happy with Ella Fitzgerald
I like Ella Fitzgerald. I think she’s the greatest singer that ever was. Hold your hand at chest height, fingers parallel with the floor: that’s Sinatra level. Move up to your chin— there’s Sarah Vaughn. Now reach up as high as you can. That’s Ella.
What made Ella so great? Everything. To begin with, it’s a simply beautiful voice. Ravishing tone from top to bottom of her 3 octave range. Add to that flawless rhythm, transparent technique, clockwork timing, diction as perfect as her sense of melody and miraculous, effortless intonation. She can hit any note she wants dead on no matter the interval. You never hear her reach for, stab at, or slide up to a note. She’s just there.
Get Happy is an album of upbeat songs drawn from 5 recording sessions of the late 1950s when Ella was at the height of her powers. It demonstrates everything I love about the First Lady of Song.
Here’s the opening of the album: “Somebody Loves Me” by the Gershwins in a Nelson Riddle arrangement. Nelson gives her fanfare and Ella appears. A luscious voice unrolling a great tune.
There are plenty of singers I like, but Ella is the only one I can listen to for hours. That is because she makes every song a great listening experience. She’s not telling a story, or creating a character or searching for emotional truth. She’s just making it as entertaining as she (and her collaborators) can.
“Moonlight Becomes You” (Jimmy Van Heusen music & Johnny Burke lyrics) was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1942. It’s a typical tune of its day for a boy band-singer—objectification of the female with clichéd romantic language for the purpose of getting into her pants. Sung by a woman to a man it’s just plain silly. But the beauty and tenderness of the performance neutralizes the gender issues. Ella makes it a universal expression of romance, intense (but chaste) and dreamy. You hear the voice and the music (Herb Ellis on guitar and Lou Levy on piano) and everything else disappears. You can listen for hours and let your mind make any pictures it wants.
An outstanding example of Ella’s diction and rhythm is the album capper “St. Louis Blues” (WC Handy). It’s a straight blues and Ella does it full justice although she is not a blues singer. The bridge, however, is written in a Spanish dance rhythm. It’s tricky to sing on its own without slides and made even tougher by all those hard consonants and S’s. Ella renders its faultlessly. It even sounds like she’s taking her time with it!
When I speak of Fitzgerald as a master musician I don’t mean merely her technical abilities, although she was as much a virtuosa as Horowitz, Armstrong, Yo Yo Ma or Callas. I mean she had a complete, inherent understanding of the art and complete command of the dimensions—that is the notes and the space between them both tonal and temporal. When she scats she is improvising counterpoint. That is not in itself a unique ability; every professional church organist does it. But they have to be taught. Even Bach and Mozart had to learn how to do it. Not Ella. Harmonics and rhythm were hard-hired into her.
Here’s a clip from the Irving Berlin classic “Blue Skies.”
It’s a pretty jazzy tune on its own which inspires Ella to really go to town on it. She skips the verse and scats an intro instead. She sings the refrain and the bridge and launches into an extended a series of bravura improvisations (what classical musicians call a cadenza). Anchored by the tempo and a few chords, she swings for 3 verses. She modulates the key, changes the time signature, adds and discards syncopation and even throws in quotes from “Rhapsody in Blue” and Wagner’s “Wedding March.” And when she’s done, she touches down on the bridge perfectly in synch with the combo, in tune and on tempo without any compensation.
That’s why I love Ella.