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Ella 101

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
Credit William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, was born 101 years ago. Beloved around the world as not just America's foremost jazz vocalist, but perhaps the premier interpreter of The Great American Songbook, Ella won 13 Grammy Awards and has sold over 40 million albums.

For the next 101 days, every day, Equinox host Duante Beddingfield will share a recording from her six-decade career and discussing its context among her catalogue and, occasionally, among music history.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

"My fur coat's sold,
Oh, Lord, ain't it cold
But I'm not gonna holler
Cuz i still got a dollar,
And when I get low..."

So let's reach way back and talk about this weird anomaly from early in Ella Fitzgerald's singing career. Ella made her name singing in drummer Chick Webb's big band before striking out on her own in the late '40s.

On April 7, 1936, the band recorded this strikingly jaunty ditty about a female drunk or junkie--it's hard to tell for sure, because back then, "high" was also a synonym for "drunk." (See the lyrics from Bessie Smith's 1928 "Me and My Gin," also covered by Dinah Washington 30 years later, for a clear example of this.)

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

My favorite Ella Fitzgerald recording, a spectacular track recorded March 18, 1958 for The Irving Berlin Songbook, then--amazingly--cut from the record! This didn't see daylight till the following year's Get Happy.

Here, conductor Paul Weston drops Ella in front of a big band filled out with a number of her regular studio backers (including frequent collaborator Harry "Sweets" Edison on solo trumpet) and provides a jazzy, wide-open arrangement as a vehicle for perhaps the greatest scat solo she ever laid down in a studio setting, a dazzling flight over two and a half full choruses.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

A sizzling take on a major standard, with a knockout big band arrangement by Bill Doggett. That horn sound is MASSIVE. And no wonder - the band included folks like Ernie Royal, Melba Liston, Kai Winding, Les Taylor, and Phil Woods. Hank Jones on piano, Lucille Dixon on bass, Gus Johnson on drums, Mundell Lowe on guitar. Hell of a band.

Ella's having a blast here playing with multiple dynamics, getting to do torch ballad and blistering swing all in a matter of minutes, even throwing in a little scat. Recorded in January 1962 as the closing track for that year's Rhythm is My Business, it nicely capsulizes all of what she did best.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

A fun track from 1963's Ella Sings Broadway, this fluffy little number from The Pajama Game is juiced up with a smoky, vamping, almost bebop-style Marty Paich arrangement that lets Ella play around a little. A good example of how she could take a song that had no business being taken seriously on a vocal jazz record, and make it somehow work.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Easily in my top five Ella Fitzgerald recordings, from a little-heard concert in 1953 Japan with a wildly enthusiastic audience and Ella at the peak of her vocal power.

November 18, 1953, the Nichigeki Theatre in Tokyo. Raymond Tunia on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, J.C. Heard *killing* it on drums.

This is a great example of how loose, playful, and creative Ella could get when she had an audience and a small combo. Much of her studio material, especially in her peak years, tended more toward adult pop, in the Sinatra/standards vein. She didn't often get to go deep into jazz on her studio albums, but her concerts were a whole different story.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Ella tackles a bop classic and smooths it out into liquid silk. This sexy take on Dizzy Gillespie's standard, recorded the first weeks of 1961, has Herb Ellis on guitar, Joe Mondragon on bass, Gus Johnson on drums, and Lou Levy doing some very tasty piano work.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

A fun little recording from early 1959, originally done for the Gershwin Songbook album but dropped, and released later that year on Get Happy! A bright and brassy Nelson Riddle arrangement finds Ella backed by Riddle's orchestra with Paul Smith on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Joe Mondragon on bass, and Bill Richmond on drums. This bouncy little tune used to be a standard but nobody seems to do it anymore. I don't think I've ever heard a version of it that didn't make me smile.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

An epic, eight-and-a-half-minute recording from a September 18, 1949 date with Jazz at the Philharmonic, a long-running concert series produced by Norman Granz, the maestro behind Ella's peak years at Verve Records.

Ella holds her own here with an all-star band of absolute masters--a rhythm section of Hank Jones on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and Buddy Rich on drums, and a horn section with Roy Eldridge on Trumpet, Tommy Turk on trombone, Lester Young AND Flip Philips on tenor, and the man himself, Charlie Parker on alto.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

April 11, 1974, Ella's set at Ronnie Scott's legendary jazz club in London's West End is recorded for later release as Ella in London, but the concert is also filmed--a fact I didn't know until today while looking for clips of the audio. I've been listening to this album for twenty years and never knew there was footage.

Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Ella was always at her finest when in company with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, and this 1957 outing from Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook captures every entity involved at peak form.

Ellington sets the tone with some boozy barroom piano, followed by a weeping, wailing solo by Johnny Hodges on alto and some fiery shouting and moaning from Cat Anderson on trumpet before Ella's entry. Her soulful reading sways perfectly over the dark hues of the band's slow groove.

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