Saturday, May 15, 2021

This Day in Jazz History (Ella Fitzgerald Sets Standards Canon With First ‘Song Book’)

May 15, 1956—Two decades after starting a highly diverse career in which she moved from big-band jazz singer to popular music headliner in her own right, Ella Fitzgerald began to create a Valhalla for classic American songwriters in her first LP at the Verve record label: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook.

Some years ago, I heard the musical term “standard” defined as “any song that Ella and Frank would sing.” An inexact definition, maybe, but it comes as close as any other I can think of.

To start with, the two singers launched Cole Porter into the songwriter firmament. Just before the composer-lyricist was about to enter a final lonely, agonizing physical decline nearly two decades after a devastating equestrian accident, he experienced a last burst of popularity as Sinatra (with some help from Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly) propelled the soundtrack for his musical High Society up the Billboard chart, and turned “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” into a major hit 20 years after it was introduced to the public.

But Ella got there first, with her 32-track double-album devoted to the Indiana native who came to personify international sophistication and cheeky wit.

It was not entirely coincidental that 1956 was the year when Fitzgerald and Sinatra made their landmark Porter recordings, as the two singers reached artistic maturity virtually simultaneously through the help of new musical mentors and new technology. 

Sinatra’s musical game-changer was arranger Nelson Riddle, who recorded “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” for their second collaboration, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! Fitzgerald’s was jazz record producer and concert promoter Norman Granz, who had persuaded her to leave her two-decade musical home, Decca Records.

Though it had produced early hits such as her novelty song, “A-tisket, A-tasket,” the label, noted musical critic Dan Morgenstern, was “never quite sure how to present a singer of such versatility….From a positive angle, this made it impossible to typecast Ella; but on the other hand, it prevented her from developing a strong identity.”

Once Granz moved Fitzgerald to Verve (a label founded originally to record her), they embarked on an extraordinary eight-year skein of discs that paid tribute to the finest American lyricists and composers: Porter, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer.

The recordings, which often brought new prominence to little-known gems, made even the honorees take notice. Ira Gershwin once declared, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” After hearing the collection devoted to Rodgers and Hart, Berlin requested—and was granted—inclusion in the series.

“Armstrong and Crosby and Astaire and Holiday and Sinatra each had an incalculable impact on the canon of modern song,” jazz critic Gary Giddins observed in Visions of Jazz: The First Century. “But Fitzgerald erected the pantheon.”

The still-new technology that benefited Sinatra and Fitzgerald was the long-playing record. Introduced in 1947, it had become, by the mid-1950s, the go-to musical format for audiophiles who appreciated its fidelity to recorded sound and to musicians who enjoyed the increased freedom provided by works of longer duration.

The qualities exhibited by Fitzgerald in her LPs—and especially those in the “Song Book” series—were perhaps best summarized by British critic Henry Pleasants in The Great American Popular Singers (1974):

“She has a lovely voice, one of the warmest and most radiant in its natural range that I have heard in a lifetime of listening to singers in every category. She has an impeccable and ultimately sophisticated rhythmic sense, and flawless intonation. Her harmonic sensibility is extraordinary. She is endlessly inventive.”

By the end of 1956, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook had reached No. 18 on the list of Billboard Best Sellers for the whole year. When the Songbook series concluded with the Johnny Mercer disk in 1964, Fitzgerald was cajoled into trying artists and genres for which she had little affinity, such as The Beatles and country music.

But Fitzgerald, with a falsetto much-admired but seldom matched in popular song, had already created her legacy: virtually institutionalizing the jazz and popular songs created primarily for Broadway and Hollywood musicals from the Twenties to the Fifties. The scat-singer extraordinaire from earlier in her career had become, quite simply, The First Lady of Song.

No comments: