Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th Birthday Celebration at New York’s Rainbow Room Culminates Year-Long Tribute

Ms. Ella Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a GRAMMY in 1958, and she recorded more than 200 albums throughout her career. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)

By Danny R. Johnson – Jazz and Pop Music Critic

NEW YORK, NY – “She [Ella Fitzgerald] was my favorite singer… Her recordings will live forever. She’ll sound as modern 200 years from now, no matter what technique they come up with.” – Tony Bennett.

Verve Label Group, in partnership with the City of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, hosted a proclamation ceremony to give one of America’s greatest treasures in music a posthumous 100th birthday celebration – Ms. Ella Fitzgerald!  New York City Media and Entertainment Commissioner Julie Menin, presented a Mayoral Proclamation, declaring April 25th – Musical legend Ella Fitzgerald’s Centennial Birthday (April 25, 1917) – “Ella Fitzgerald Day” in NYC.

Ms. Fitzgerald’s former neighbor in Beverly Hills, CA, where she lived for several years, Tony Bennett, performed a song, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” in Ms. Fitzgerald’s honor. Students from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a public arts high school founded by Tony Bennett in his hometown of Astoria, Queens also performed. The festivities all took place at the famous Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Plaza, City of New York. Bennett donated a framed print of his portrait of the singer to the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. Founded in 1993, the organization supports at risk individuals of all races and cultures with a particular emphasis on children in need. Bennett’s original portrait of Ms. Fitzgerald is part of the Ella Fitzgerald Permanent Collection in the Smithsonian Institution.

Verve Records is the home of Ms. Fitzgerald’s extraordinary recording legacy; “Ella Day” launches a year-long campaign to commemorate this milestone. On April 21, 2017, several reissues of her most beloved recordings were released, which included a 4-CD set 100 Songs for A Centennial, and a 5-LP vinyl reissue of Ella Sings The George & Ira Gershwin Songbook.

At the April 25th ceremony, Danny Bennett, CEO and President of Verve Label Group, announced beginning in late 2017, Verve will release a new album featuring Ms. Fitzgerald’s classic vocal recordings accompanied by new orchestral arrangements by the London Symphony Orchestra.

When Duke Ellington came up with the phrase “beyond category” to describe Ms. Fitzgerald, he had no idea that those two words would take on a life of their own. However, in his most famous live appearance sharing a stage with her, their 1966 engagement at the Côte d’Azur in France, Ellington didn’t employ this famous encomium. Instead, he introduced Ms. Fitzgerald with a variation on her standard enhanced with what in other case would have seemed like classic Ducal hyperbole, describing her as “the very, very very, First Lady of Song.”  Ellington’s use of the triple “very” echoes Johnny Mercer, and indicates that Ms. Fitzgerald is not only beyond category, she is too marvelous for words – and he outdoes Mercer by one “very.”

Ms. Fitzgerald has been known as the First Lady of Swing, the First Lady of Jazz, and the First Lady of Song for nearly her entire career up to her death in 1996, and posthumously she seems to have become the First Lady of the entire American Musical Experience.

(L-R) Danny Bennett, CEO and President of Verve Label Group, Julie Menin, Commissioner, Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Tony Bennett, Fran Morris-Rosman, Executive Director of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, and Richard Rosman, of the Rainbow Room.

She was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, VA, and as was true of both Mabel Mercer and Billie Holiday, her parents were not married at the time of her birth. Ms. Fitzgerald’s father was absent from the very moment she took her first breath , and so was her brief residency in VA, as her mother moved the two of them up to Yonkers, NY. For the next 15 years, Ms. Fitzgerald grew up on the periphery of New York City and of the world of jazz but was enamored of the burgeoning music scene. She was especially keen on two New Orleans natives, Louis Armstrong and Connee Boswell, the gifted jazz-pop singer who appeared both as a soloist and as one of the three Boswell Sisters.

She never met her father, and her mother, according to most biographers, died when she was just 15 in 1932. By her mid-teens, Ms. Fitzgerald was on her own. In 1934, she tried her luck at the world’s most famous amateur talent contest, the one held on Saturday nights at the world famous Harlem’s Apollo Theater. According to Ms. Fitzgerald’s own mythology, she had originally intended to perform as a dancer, but it happened a very accomplished dance act went on immediately before her, so at the last moment she decided give it a shot as a vocalist. She had no voice training or experience as a singer, but she liked the way Connee Boswell sang the Hoagy Carmichael song Judy. (Or so as Ms. Fitzgerald later said; there is no evidence that Boswell ever sang that particular song and she never recorded it.) Ralph Cooper, the emcee of the contest that night and many others, later distinctly remembered Ms. Fitzgerald singing another Boswell associated song, The Object of My Affection. Whatever it was she sang that night is immaterial: The point is that she won the contest at the Apollo.

As a result of the attention, Ms. Fitzgerald was soon singing with drummer Chick Webb and His Orchestra at the no less famous Savoy Ballroom, roughly 20 blocks north of the Apollo. Long before she was 20, Ms. Fitzgerald was regarded as a cultural and musical leader by her fellow Harlem contemporaries. She cut her first of hundreds of recording sessions in June 1935 with Webb’s band, singing on two titles, Love and Kisses and I’ll Chase the Blues Away.

In 1938, the band rose even higher, thanks to the breakthrough hit A Tisket, A Tasket. It was the singer herself who had the idea to do a swinging treatment of the traditional nursery rhyme, which she worked out with the help of staff arranger Al Feldman (aka Van Alexander). This would virtually be the only blockbuster jukebox hit that Ms. Fitzgerald would ever land, but it came at a time when she needed it the most. Tisket made her into name in white homes as well as African Americans, a status she would never relinquish.

Ms. Fitzgerald resonated with Tisket for various reasons: The song was pure hard-swinging rhythm with negligible emotional or lyrical content, yet when she sang of how she missed her little yellow basket, it sound as if she really meant it. Here she was, half girl, half woman at 21, doing a song that was half-children rhyme and half-grown-up dance number, with a text that was silly but also deep down, almost serious. It was a perfect song for her at the perfect time. No wonder she had thought of it herself.

Ms. Fitzgerald’s big band experience lasted six years, the last two of which found her fronting the orchestra after Webb’s death, at the age of 34, in 1939. Generally speaking, the weakest period of her career is the war years and the immediate aftermath. Like much of her contemporaries as Eckstine, Cole, Sinatra, and Shore, Ms. Fitzgerald would spend the early to mid-forties helping to redefine the notion of the modern jazz-pop singer, and to reinvent herself in the process. At the time, the popular music business was almost entirely predicated on singles, and as Ms. Fitzgerald (like Sinatra later on) was just not a singles artist. Despite the overall excellence of her output, which kept getting better and better as the forties rolled on, and her fierce allegiance to Decca Records and her producer, Milt Gabler, she cracked the Top 10 only rarely.

On April 21, 2017, Verve released several re-issues of Ms. Fitzgerald’s most beloved recordings, which included a 4-CD set 100 Songs for A Centennial, and a 5-LP vinyl reissue of Ella Sings The George & Ira Gershwin Songbook.

Yet she achieved for herself what Tony Bennett later stated to be his only goal: Rather than the occasional hit single, Ms. Fitzgerald created a hit catalogue. “Ella Fitzgerald never had a hit after ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ but she sold a lot of records,” as Mitch Miller, a producer for a rival label, observed at one point. In spite of never recording a career long signature song, like Come On A My House, Fever, or I Left My Heart In San Francisco, she was one of the consistently biggest selling female singers of all time; in 1954, Decca claimed that she had sold a staggering 22 million records for the company!

Even before Ms. Fitzgerald began working with Gabler, she had begun following Bing Crosby’s example in teaming up with a wide range of bands and singers. There were solo stars, most notably Louis Armstrong vocal groups, like the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots; and sometimes whole bands, like Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five.

But beyond swing and the songbook, the new with which Ms. Fitzgerald most effectively reenergized her career was the emerging jazz art form known as bebop, which gradually in the late 1940s. Born in the same year as occasional collaborator Dizzy Gillespie, by late 1940s Ms. Fitzgerald was incorporating more and more of bebop harmonies and rhythmic conventions into her music, in particular into her scat singing. She was building on the groundwork she had laid down a decade earlier with the swinging nursey rhymes, which, infused with the boundless imagination she channeled in her scat singing, elevated nonsense and even doggerel into art. She advanced from these to even more progressive bop classics, like Tadd Dameron’s Cool Breeze. However, the best of her mature scat epics would be based on standards like Lady Be Good and How High the Moon and would utilize at least a one-chorus run-through of the lyrics before flying home.

Ms. Fitzgerald’s swing and her timing are perfect – astonishingly so, almost superhuman; you can’t find a metronome with time this good. That’s probably the reason why her scatting uninterrupted for three to five minutes is so awesome and delightfully entertaining.

One of the mysteries of pop history is why Decca Records allowed Ms. Fitzgerald to leave in 1955 and begin recording for Norman Granz’s newly formed Verve Records label. She was a perfect fit for the Verve organization because Granz was generally indifferent to the singles market: It would release occasional 45s by its artists, but the label’s primary focus was on the long-playing album format. And Ms. Fitzgerald had the full attention of the Verve collaborators such as Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Paul Weston, Frank DeVol, and Marty Paich to work with her. Granz was going after the highbrows who had heard of Jerome Kern and Charlie Parker, not kids dropping nickels in a juke box. This strategic investment strategy proved to be very successful for Verve and Ms. Fitzgerald’s career going forward, and she was perfectly poised to assume her position as queen of the long-playing disc.

The emphasis on the songbook albums were the most viable expression of the renewed interest in American pop music. In the early stages of the contract with Ms. Fitzgerald, Verve had a soso success with the songbook projects, but by the third entry, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, the series really caught fire. It would be Ellington’s most ambitious collaboration with a star singer, and overall the most exciting of Ms. Fitzgerald’s songbook projects, proving that not only was traditional pop commercially viable in what was wrongly portrayed as strictly the Rock n Roll era, but so, too, was Ellington’s blend of orchestrated jazz.

In 1959, Granz sold his interest in Verve Records, less than four years after he founded it, but continued to produce Ms. Fitzgerald’s recordings and serve as her personal manager. By this time, she, like Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Nat Cole, was now a cottage name in the industry. She was constantly touring, appearing on every TV variety show in existence, and continually releasing new albums – as many as five or six a year.

By the mid-1990s, Ms. Fitzgerald’s diabetes made it impossible for her to work, especially when part of one leg, then the other, had to be amputated. She died in June 1996. As a singer, she is clearly one of the God-like mortals, perhaps the only vocalist with chops to rival Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, or Buddy Rich – she does things with her instrument that are simply not humanly possible.

Ms. Ella Fitzgerald was the greatest female singer who ever sang the American song book. Her voice was pure silk, it was perfume, it was a frothy pink clod, it was champagne, it was pure joy, it was the stuff that dreams were made out of; her intonation and timing were impeccable and unimaginably astonishing! Above all – she knew how to sing a melody: Even when she played with one, she never screwed around with it; even when she was scatting for chorus after chorus, she never made herself more important than the song. Like Sinatra, she was the beginning and the end, setting an impossible high bar for jazz singers and female singers in particular that could never be exceeded or even matched.

Happy 100th Birthday to a Grand Dame of a First Lady of Song – Ms. Ella Fitzgerald!

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