Since Ella Fitzgerald has been dubbed ”The First Lady of Song,” I’m featuring her first. Whenever I hear that voice, I think of my mom. The first song she ever taught me was Fitzgerald’s version of ”A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” so it evokes very happy childhood memories. My mom would sing it while hanging laundry, or lindying around in our kitchen.
Until I read a biography of Fitzgerald, I didn’t realize that the song—which propelled her to fame with the Chick Webb and his Orchestra—was also her screen debut in an Abbott and Costello comedy called Ride ‘Em Cowboy.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Va. on April 25, 1917. Her father, William, and mother, Temperance (Tempie), parted ways shortly after her birth. Together, Tempie and Ella went to Yonkers, N.Y, where they eventually moved in with Tempie’s longtime boyfriend Joseph Da Silva. Ella’s half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923 and soon she began referring to Joe as her stepfather.To support the family, Joe dug ditches and was a part-time chauffeur, while Tempie worked at a laundromat and did some catering. Occasionally, Ella took on small jobs to contribute money as well. Perhaps naïve to the circumstances, Ella worked as a runner for local gamblers, picking up their bets and dropping off money.
Their apartment was in a mixed neighborhood, where Ella made friends easily. She considered herself more of a tomboy, and often joined in the neighborhood games of baseball. Sports aside, she enjoyed dancing and singing with her friends, and some evenings they would take the train into Harlem and watch various acts at the Apollo Theater. In 1932, Tempie died from serious injuries that she received in a car accident. Ella took the loss very hard. After staying with Joe for a short time, Tempie’s sister Virginia took Ella home. Shortly afterward Joe suffered a heart attack and died, and her little sister Frances joined them. Unable to adjust to the new circumstances, Ella became increasingly unhappy and entered into a difficult period of her life. Her grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. Living there was even more unbearable, as she suffered beatings at the hands of her caretakers. Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory. The 15-year-old found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression, and strove to endure.
In 1934 Ella’s name was pulled in a weekly drawing at the Apollo and she won the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night. Ella went to the theater that night planning to dance, but when the frenzied Edwards Sisters closed the main show, Ella changed her mind. “They were the dancingest sisters around,” Ella said, and she felt her act would not compare. Once on stage, faced with boos and murmurs of “What’s she going to do?” from the rowdy crowd, a scared and disheveled Ella made the last minute decision to sing. She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” a song she knew well because Connee Boswell’s rendition of it was among Tempie’s favorites. Ella quickly quieted the audience, and by the song’s end they were demanding an encore. She obliged and sang the flip side of the Boswell Sister’s record, “The Object of My Affections.”
She won, and the rest was history, though not without facing other obstacles along the way.
Stuart Nicholson’s Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz is considered to be the biography of Fitzgerald. It seemed strange to me is that there are so very few books telling her story, though after reading this, I began to understand why. She was an intensely private person, and she didn’t want to have her acutely painful early beginnings explored, and didn’t care to dwell on them.
Nicholson writes about this hidden history in his introduction.
Ella’s whole career has been full of paradoxes, some almost hidden from view, some not, as I discovered when I became progressively more involved in this project. I quickly realized it was going to be very different from what I had imagined it would be. Quite apart from anything else, I found I had to delve into much more material than I had previously envisaged. While there was plenty that had been written about Ella, there was also plenty that I discovered was patently incorrect. And as I solved one enigma, there always seemed to be another to take its place, like a nest of Russian dolls. As my knowledge of Ella’s story grew, it gradually began to dawn on me that I was in the midst of trying to strip away the myths that made the legend.
There were vast inconsistencies about her early years, for example. Since Ella has steadfastly refused to talk in anything but the most superficial terms about her childhood and the time that preceded her membership in the Chick Webb Orchestra, writers and journalists over the decades have filled in the missing details in the best jazz tradition: They improvised. To paraphrase that immortal line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: When the woman became a legend, they printed the legend…
Why then should there be such inconsistencies in her past? Perhaps the answer lies in her difficult childhood. It now seems clear that she has simply replaced memories that are painful to her with an idealized version that she can live with. This is by no means unusual; countless people who have experienced difficult episodes in their past have done, and are doing, the same thing. It is a way of coping with life. But separating those strands can make the biographer feel at times, I must confess, like a person calling a minister a liar mid-vespers.
One of the most interesting takes on Fitzgerald I’ve read was not about her music at all, but about her as a role model for black women who were not svelte. Holly Gleason reflected on her influence on not just her grandmother, but herself, for NPR, in “The Joy Of Ella Fitzgerald’s Accessible Elegance.”
When she won the Amateur Talent Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1934, bringing down the house singing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” big-band leader Fletcher Henderson still declined to hire her. Even bandleader Chick Webb, who himself had a spinal deformity that put his looks outside the accepted norm, was reticent. In The New York Times‘ 1996 “Ella In Wonderland,” Margo Jefferson posits: “Too ugly, said the band leader with the tubercular spine… Was he afraid the sight of two plain people onstage, one malformed, the other dowdy and gawky, presumed too much on the goodwill of his audience?” When your dream depends on looks, that knowledge scalds. Determined once she got her break to not look back, Fitzgerald recognized she didn’t possess Billie Holiday’s torchy allure, Eartha Kitt’s feral sensuality or Carmen McRae’s sex appeal. But that wouldn’t stop the woman who took her vocal cues from the horns, as well as from jazz singer Connee Boswell…
Beyond the sheer pleasure of dressing up, Fitzgerald used what she wore to open doors. All women did. They knew what they wore was presentational shorthand; the clothes spoke volumes about who they were, their place in society, even their personality. To dress well meant – for my grandmother, the women of all ages at church, and especially the elegantly turned-out African American ladies you’d see shopping at Halle Brothers or Higbees in downtown Cleveland – that you were elegant, respectable, of equal stature to anyone else whether in a restaurant, a department store or on the street. Clothes buttressed you from marginalizing judgments, something even more crucial for a black woman like Fitzgerald.
Dress also made you glorious, colorful, grand. It could say “I am,” in a way that was more than just classic. For my grandmother, who wouldn’t surrender her style, as well as all the other women who loved Ella — heck, for me as a girl wanting to wear sparkly things, chiffon layers, fun hats — Ella Fitzgerald said, “Yes, you can! Do it! Love it! Swing it with as much joy as you have in your heart.”
I think about all those black women in my life who dressed like Fitzgerald, who went to church looking like Ella, and again, it makes me smile.
In 1999, PBS presented the American Masters Series documentary Ella Fitzgerald, Something to Live For, directed by Charlotte Zwerin. It’s worth a watch.
The rest of the series is easily found on YouTube.
Now that I’ve introduced Ella Fitzgerald, and explored a bit of her non-musical impact, let’s kick off our springtime celebration with her version of “April in Paris,” recorded live in 1957 at Jazz Pour Tous in Brussels. She’s accompanied by Don Abney on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on the bass, and Jo Jones on drums.
Also born in April was Eleanora Fagan, who jazz fans know as Billie Holiday. Many people who didn’t grow up with her music first learned Holiday’s story via Diana Ross’ portrayal of her in the film Lady Sings the Blues. While the musical impressions we get from Fitzgerald may be smiles, without a trace of her early life and abuse, with Holiday—even at her uptempo best—it is hard to erase an all-enveloping sense of tragedy. Holiday battled heroin addiction, after all, and died as a result of both complications of her addiction and endless persecution by the FBI. I’ve always felt connected to Holiday through my dad, because he’d starred in Strange Fruit on Broadway—and she made the song, which speaks of the racist tradition of lynching in America, famous.
Contrast Ella’s version of “April in Paris” with Billie’s.
There are very few major jazz musicians who haven’t recorded ”April in Paris,” which, as noted by Jazz Standards’ Sandra Burlingame, was originally a show tune.
The 1932 Broadway revue Walk a Little Faster introduced “April in Paris,” composed by Vernon Duke and lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg. The production starred comedians Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough and actress/singer Beatrice Lillie. This was the first time Duke had written the complete score for a show, and “April in Paris” was not originally a part of it. Set designer Boris Aronson had created a Left Bank setting for a number, and the producers wanted a romantic song. Duke and some friends and collaborators were having a discussion when someone (purportedly Dorothy Parker) expressed a longing to be in Paris during the month of April. […]
It was Count Basie’s classic 1955 recording of “April in Paris,” arranged by organist “Wild” Bill Davis, that brought the song to the forefront for jazz musicians. It was the Basie Band’s biggest hit, climbing to number 28 on the charts. The swinging performance, which featured an abundance of sterling solos, was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and future performers have continued to reference the “one more time” tag ending.
Some of the many jazz musicians who recorded the song include Ella Fitzgerald with Oscar Peterson, Coleman Hawkins, Mel Torme, Ahmad Jamal, Stan Kenton, Artie Shaw, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Erroll Garner in his memorable Concert by the Sea album, recorded in the same year as the Basie arrangement. Among contemporary artists who have recorded the tune are saxophonist Don Braden, reed player Anthony Braxton, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, drummer Cindy Blackman, guitarist Bireli Lagrene, and vocalist Kurt Elling.
And, as IMDB reminds us, who could forget the cameo by Count Basie and his orchestra in Blazing Saddles?
The Count Basie cameo occurs fairly early in Blazing Saddles. Bart (Cleavon Little) is headed to the Old West town of Rock Ridge as the new sheriff, dressed to the nines. Count Basie’s signature jazz number, “April in Paris,” plays in the background, highlighting Bart’s urbane demeanor. And as Bart rides across the prairie, he encounters … Count Basie and his orchestra, performing “April in Paris” right there on the frontier.
I can’t leave you with just that hilarious but brief Basie take. Here’s the full orchestral version of Basie’s ”April in Paris,” filmed during a 1965 tour of the United Kingdom, at the studios of BBC4.
Contemporary jazz fans may be more familiar with Illinois-born, Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling’s version.
Leaving Paris behind, but sticking with the month of April as a theme, another jazz classic is ”I’ll Remember April.” Much to my surprise, I found out it’s another tune with comedy roots in Abbott and Costello’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy. The version in the film was sung by B-movie matinee idol Dick Foran.
“I’ll Remember April” soon became a part of the jazz standards playbook. It is one of my favorite ballads, particularly as sung by one of my favorite jazz vocalists—Carmen McRae, who was also born in April.
Born to Jamaican immigrant parents in New York City on April 8, 1920, Carmen McRae was one of the best female jazz vocalists ever, bar none—but as “the definitive website” devoted to her work notes, she never achieved the same fame as either Fitzgerald or Holliday
Eight years younger than her idol, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae was a contemporary of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Ella and Sarah were already well established by the time Carmen came onto the scene, but it wasn’t long before Carmen was considered their artistic equal, although she never achieved their wide popularity. She never had a huge hit nor did she ever receive a Grammy. But, on the other hand, she never made a bad record nor compromised her high standards.
Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan inspired awe with their vocal prowess. Ella – with her perfect pitch and unerring sense of time – could reproduce any instrumental jazz riff, and Sarah – with her multi-octave range and ultra-flexible voice – could change octave and color on a single note. Carmen, however, could bring a tear to the eye or a lump to the throat, with her reading of a lyric. That was her great talent. She combined the ability to project the emotional connotations of a song with a musical intelligence that was derived in part from her knowledge of the piano.
Sample McRae’s beautiful voice below.
I feel a personal connection to McRae because my good friend and former roommate in the Black Panther Party, Janet Cyril, was her niece; when we needed support to raise funds for the Panther 21 legal defense in New York, Carmen stepped up to do a benefit, and supported our struggle for justice. She was often a participant in activist events.
From the Pacifica Radio Archives, here’s an interview with McRae, conducted by Angela Davis. She talks about starting out on the piano, her parent’s very West Indian disapproval of the world of show business, her playing and singing in Chicago, her return to New York, her work with musicians like Charlie Parker, and her songs about women.
Returning to Paris, where we began, one of my favorite vocalese versions of “I’ll Remember April” was recorded by the Blue Stars of France, who were the forerunners to The Double Six of Paris and the Swingle Singers. Vocalese is a style of jazz vocal, in which lyrics are composed for and sung to music taken from existing instrumental jazz tunes. This is different from “scat” singing, where the performer improvises, using their voice as an instrument, usually with nonsense syllables. The most well-known pioneers of vocalese were Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, profiled by Daily Kos contributor Ed Tracey.
I’ll close with the Duke. Born on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C., Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington remains America’s greatest jazz composer; his official website has the receipts ready, should anyone dare to challenge that distinction.
• President Lyndon Johnson presented Duke Ellington with the President’s Gold Medal in 1966.
• President Richard M. Nixon presented Duke Ellington with the Medal of Freedom in 1969.
• Duke Ellington received 13 Grammy Awards.
• Duke Ellington received the Pulitzer Prize
• Was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1973.
• Has a United States Commemorative stamp with his image on it issued in 1986.
Duke Ellington influenced millions of people both around the world and at home. He gave American music its own sound for the first time. In his fifty year career, he played over 20,000 performances in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East as well as Asia. Simply put, Ellington transcends boundaries and fills the world with a treasure trove of music that renews itself through every generation of fans and music-lovers. His legacy continues to live on and will endure for generations to come. Winton Marsalis said it best when he said “His music sounds like America.” Because of the unmatched artistic heights to which he soared, no one deserved the phrase “beyond category” more than Ellington, for it aptly describes his life as well. He was most certainly one of a kind that maintained a lifestyle with universal appeal which transcended countless boundaries.
Duke Ellington is best remembered for the over 3000 songs that he composed during his lifetime. His best known titles include; “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing”, “Sophisticated Lady”, “Mood Indigo”, “Solitude”, “In a Mellotone”, and “Satin Doll”. The most amazing part about Ellington was the most creative while he was on the road. It was during this time when he wrote his most famous piece, “Mood Indigo” which brought him world wide fame.
When asked what inspired him to write, Ellington replied, “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people”.
“Springtime in Africa” is one of Ellington’s lesser-known pieces, from the album Piano in the Foreground. It is not the big band sound most associate with Ellington. Rather, it is a poem on the piano.
Be sure to check out the American History Museum this month (and year-round) for its unique celebrations.
Jazz crosses borders, and spans the seasons, so join me next Sunday for a festival of Latin Jazz.
The list of jazz versions of songs about springtime and April is too long to explore in just one story. Which tunes are your favorites? What moment in time, feelings, and memories do certain tunes evoke for you? I look forward to reading (and hearing) your responses.