July 28, 2021

the queen of jazz who beat poverty and discrimination

The June 15, 1996 The voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the greatest jazz singer in history, was extinguished at age 79 in Beverly Hills, California, which from an unequaled technique; a style that conveyed drama, tenderness and humor, especially from the development of scat; and the approach to a wide repertoire, revolutionized the role of vocalists in the genre.

“I never thought my songs were so good until I heard them sung by Ella,” said none other than George Gershwin, in what could be the most precise and forceful definition of this artist.

Heir to African-American music culture, the artist anticipated the advent of bebop With his use of scat, he ventured into various genres, including swing, blues, bossa nova, samba and ballads.

Ella Fitzgerald entered the National Portrait Gallery of America in 2017. Photo Supplied By Globe Photos, Inc / Zuma Press / dpa

In all of them, the “first lady of jazz” or the “queen of scat”, as she was called among other ways, stood out and laid the foundations for future artists, in many cases associated with other notable figures como Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Jim Hall y Joe Pass, entre tantos.

But the notoriety achieved by this artist and a review of her personal history allows us to glimpse a path of self-improvement in the face of the difficulties of being woman, poor and black in a society in which prejudice and discrimination raged, and in which the value of life varied according to the origin and color of the skin.

Between poverty and homelessness

Born in the state of Virginia in 1917, Ella Fitzgerald grew up in poverty between the abandonment of his father, the untimely death of his mother In a car accident – when she was only 13 years old – she went through a juvenile boarding school and some brush with the law due to her fondness for hanging out with men to play and committing small youth outrages.

As described by journalist Nina Bernstein in The New York Times, black girls were “segregated into the two most crowded and dilapidated cabins of the 17 that the reformatory had, and were routinely beaten by male staff. “

Although there was a good music program at the school, She was not in the choir: everything was white. “Everything revolved around race”, once admitted choreographer Norma Miller, nicknamed “the queen of swing,” describing de facto segregation in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s.

Finally, the teenager escaped and returned to Harlem, where he slept on the street and his career had an almost fortuitous starting point when one day in 1934 he presented himself, practically as a challenge from his friends, to a talent show in the famous Apollo theater in that city.

An “adventure” that became a career

In truth, it was not about singing but about showing a choreography. But the public’s mistreatment of a dancer more prepared than her who acted before made her change her plans and improvised a song.

Legend has it that the wayward audience calmed down as their performance progressed, finally bursting into an ovation before this adolescent with an admirable vocal range and remarkable facility for perfect tuning.

“We heard such a perfect sound” that the entire theater fell silent, according to Miller, who was a privileged spectator of the appearance of that phenomenon. “You could hear a rat pissing on cotton wool”, the artist depicted with dubious good taste.

Towards the mid-1950s, in Stockholm, Ella Fitzgerald was consolidating her career in Europe and other parts of the world, while in her own country she continued to suffer the attacks of racism.  AP Photo

Towards the mid-1950s, in Stockholm, Ella Fitzgerald was consolidating her career in Europe and other parts of the world, while in her own country she continued to suffer the attacks of racism. AP Photo

A year after that “adventure,” Fitzgerald performed at Yale University with the Chick Webb Orchestra, who had taken over for Ella and her brothers William Fitzgerald and Temperance “Tempie” Henry after the death of Mom Temperance, and at right away his first recording arrived, Love and Kisses.

But it was with the launch, in 1938, of A-Tisket, A-Tasket, her first hit, which would accompany her throughout her entire career, that she began to put her name in the big leagues. An unbeatable platform to lead Webb’s band after the drummer’s death.

The plan remained until 1942, from when he began touring solo locally in cabarets and theaters, and internationally with pop and jazz stars such as Benny Goodman. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, los Mills Brothers, los Ink Spots, y Dizzy Gillespie. Meanwhile, in addition, he nurtured his record collection.

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, one of the great pairs of jazz.  Photo AP Photo

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, one of the great pairs of jazz. Photo AP Photo

However, while by the mid-1950s Fitzgerald had already become a sensation in such distant parts of the world as Japan and Australia, and also in Europe and Australia, in the United States she was still treated as a criminal.

In fact, the singer missed her first two concerts in Sydney because she and her pianist, assistant and manager Norman Granz They got off the plane in Honolulu without any explanation or arguments. As she herself explained in an interview in 1970, she later filed a lawsuit for the fact, and won it.

Standard bearer of the American songbook

Since then, with a repertoire that left out nothing of the so-called “American songbook”, and his figure began to grow along with his colleagues Sara Vaughan and Billie Holliday, to reconfigure the jazz scene.

Granz’s entry into his life was undoubtedly a hinge for the development of his career. From 1956 to 1964, Fitzgerald recorded a 19-volume series of albums, in which he performed about 250 outstanding songs by Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin y Johnny Mercer.

For many, he was the central figure of the series Jazz at the Philarmonic, while transforming into one of the best-selling jazz singers in history, she appeared in films such as Pete Kelly’s Blues, in 1955, on television and in concert halls around the world.

She in Argentina, passing through the Jamaica Bar

Precisely in that planetary coming and going, in May 1960 the “queen of jazz” made a stopover for ten days, to join, as strange as it sounds, the celebration of the sequiscentenary of the May Revolution, which had as its central number the projection of the movie Black Orpheus, directed by Marcel Camus and based on the play Orpheus of the Conception, by Vinicius de Moraes.

Ella Fitzgerald, along with Placido Domingo and Frank Sinatra;  a summit of great voices of the twentieth century, along with the American comedian Red Buttons.

Ella Fitzgerald, along with Placido Domingo and Frank Sinatra; a summit of great voices of the twentieth century, along with the American comedian Red Buttons.

The particularity of the visit, as narrated in a wonderful way Claudio Parisi in his unmissable book Great of international Jazz in Argentina (1956 – 1979), “was that Ella and her group – consisting of Roy Eldridge, Gus Johnson, Jimo Hall, Paul Smith and Wilfred Middlebrooks – acted as the live number of the film’s premiere.

In that plan, the singer and her dream team offered between the 13th and the 23rd of that month two daily functions, in which although he had as a routine the interpretation of about six songs, the encores were not lacking, due to the insistence of the public.

“She is perfection in every way, her tuning is perfect”, summed up at the request of Télam the pianist Jorge Navarro, who had the brief but unforgettable privilege of sharing a musical moment with the singer during that visit, in the shadows of the historic bar Jamaica.

“That day I was playing with Los Swing Timers in some dances and, when we finished, I went to Jamaica,” Navarro said in Jazz greats …, and continued: “I go in, someone grabs my arm and leads me to the piano.

The singer began to lose her sight in the late 1960s, due to her diabetes.

The singer began to lose her sight in the late 1960s, due to her diabetes.

What followed remains in his own story, reproduced by Parisi. “I sit down: it was a short piano, small, quite bad, by the way. I look to one side, there was Pichi Mazzei on drums, Flaco (Jorge López Ruíz) on double bass, and when I look to the other side I see a stripped playing the guitar. The bald one was Jim Hall. I was almost petrified. “

But it does not end there. After a start up to a blues, it was time for the choirs, which were “a thousand”, according to the pianist, and it was time for his solo, which the musician began to walk with his eyes closed, until suddenly Navarro he heard a voice scat in front of him.

“I look up to see Ella Fitzgerald leaning on the piano with a glass of champagne in hand. I couldn’t believe it! ‘I am dreaming’, thought”.

To such an extent the singer felt comfortable in the city, that on May 25, at 11 in the morning, she asked for a car and appeared all in pink and with a hat on the corner of Nazca and Avellaneda, in Flores, where a “national” chocolate was served for the boys, to sing a cappella in a box set up for the occasion.

She would return to the country in June 1971, this time to perform at the Opera Theater, in the middle of her Latin American tour, accompanied by pianist Tommy Flanagan, Ed Thigpen on drums and Frank De la Rosa on double bass.

A voice that slowly faded

During the 1970s, Fitzgerald began to experience serious health problems, seriously affected by his diabetes, which made him lose his sight, already seriously damaged by the time she visited Buenos Aires for the second time.

However, the artist continued to perform periodically, even after a heart surgery he underwent in 1986. In fact, in March 1990 he appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England with the Count Basie Orchestra for the launch of Jazz FM.

In 1993, however, his career was definitively limited by complications derived from his chronic illness, which resulted in the amputation of both legs below the knees. The event meant the definitive departure from the scenes.

Ella Fitzgerald left an enormous legacy that was taken up by artists of the generations that followed.

Ella Fitzgerald left an enormous legacy that was taken up by artists of the generations that followed.

The singer’s legacy can be traced in a long list of artists, from the monumental Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ann Hampton Callaway and Patti Austin, Dianne Reeves, Natalie Cole and Diana Krall, among many and many others.

And through a set list in which eternal pieces such as Over the Rainbow, Take A Chance on Love, Mack the Knife, Cheek to Cheek, Cry Me a River, Someone to Watch Over Me, the beatle Can’t Buy Me Love, Summertime, Take the “A” Train Y Desafinado, among many others.

Ella Fitzgerald died at home of a stroke, on June 15, 1996, at the age of 79. A few hours after his death, the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. In tribute, the tent said: “Ella We Will Miss You”. Her funeral was private and she was interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, CA.

Source: Telam – Hernani Natale

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