Today’s Jazz Singers on Ella Fitzgerald

Today’s best jazz singers testify to the enduring genius of Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald (c/o Universal)

Apologies to James Brown, but Ella Fitzgerald, who would have turned 100 on April 25, was the hardest working singer in show business. Fiercely career focused from her teens through her 70s, she maintained an exhausting tour schedule and amassed a discography than runs to more than four-dozen studio releases, hundreds of singles and one of jazz’s widest, richest arrays of live albums. Never, even long past reaching the pinnacle, did she cease honing her preternatural technical, interpretive and improvisational skills. It is an extraordinary legacy—one that has affected pretty much every jazz singer who’s followed in her wake and still resonates strongly among today’s foremost practitioners.

Concisely summing up her influence, Kurt Elling considers her “one of the main ingredients. Her sense of swing, of timing and phrasing, is exemplary.”

“Ella gave me courage,” says Patti Austin, who released an excellent Fitzgerald project, For Ella, in 2002; recently completed a sequel, due out in early 2018; and has given Ella tribute concerts throughout the year. “She sang everything and I have always sung everything, which at times had a negative effect on my career. She handled that by just being brilliant at everything. As Diana Ross once said to me, ‘Darling, it’s nothing; all you have to be is perfect all the time.’ That’s what Ella was—perfect all the time. Thanks to her I realized I could do that, and that’s what’s sustained me: being true to my eclecticism.”

Lizz Wright, whose recently released Grace includes “Stars Fell on Alabama,” inspired by Fitzgerald’s 1956 duet with Louis Armstrong, cites her as “a great study in craftsmanship. I come from the gospel and choral music traditions, where words are very important—not just in the clarity of understanding what you’re singing but in trying to give [the song] a read that hopefully draws attention back to the writer and the intent of the piece. Ella always delivered that. … Her technique is flawless. She understood the structure of a song; the melody and changes were as embedded in her mind as they would be for any instrumentalist. At the same time, she used all that facility to bring me to the poetry of the song—not to make me feel smart or cultured but [like] I’m being taken care of.”

René Marie echoes Wright’s sentiment: “There are certain sounds Ella sings, and certain phrases [where] she knows how to excavate the depth of the lyric, especially on the ballads.” Marie specifically cites “Embraceable You,” noting that “there’s this line, ‘Don’t be a naughty baby,’ and when she sings ‘baby’ there’s something so tender but also a little naughty.” Marie has also found value in watching videos of Fitzgerald. “Though she seems very self-conscious, she gets lost in the music,” she says. “There’s something endearing about that, a reminder that we don’t always have to have swagger when we’re up there doing our thing. I have the same self-consciousness, and those videos help me.”

Following in the Footsteps of Ella

Of all the vocalists who’ve followed in Fitzgerald’s footsteps, Dianne Reeves is likely the only one to do so literally. “In high school I worked at a [Denver] club called the Warehouse,” recalls Reeves, who headlined an Ella celebration at the Library of Congress in March. “The big acts played upstairs and I played downstairs with Gene Harris on weekends. This particular night Ella was there, and I was so excited to see her. She came and swung a series of Beatles tunes with her trio. I never knew you could do that! I got to meet her after the show, and we sat and talked about my singing and all of that. The next night she was supposed to go on, but the altitude got to her. They told me I had to go upstairs and sing a few songs in the big room. I hung out in her dressing room and her wardrobe was still there. In the corner were these periwinkle-blue pumps. I put them on and went out and can’t even remember what I sang, because I was completely focused on her shoes.” Sartorial influence aside, “The greatest lesson she gave to me was just to get out there and do what I do, to find my own voice, define the music the way I feel it and to be authentic,” Reeves says. “When she left the stage, she left people hopeful and lifted. I love that.”

Regina Carter, who grew up listening to Fitzgerald and always felt that “it was like having your mother wrap her arms around you,” is one of the few instrumentalists to pay album-length tribute. Her stunning Ella: Accentuate the Positive (OKeh), released earlier this year, touches on every era of Fitzgerald’s career, all the way back to “Judy,” which she sang during her historic Apollo Theater debut of 1934. Fitzgerald, Carter says, schooled her in the art of storytelling. She recalls how her jazz band teacher at Michigan’s Oakland University advised her to “stop listening to jazz violin players, because you’re going to sound like them and you need to find your own voice. He told me to listen to vocalists, [and by] listening to how Ella told those stories, I learned so much. I’m sending the words through my instrument.”

Very early on, it was Fitzgerald’s scatting that inspired Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose 1997 nod, Dear Ella, earned her the first of two Grammys. “My mother said that by the time I was 10 months old, I’d pull myself up on the side of my crib and hold onto the rail, and she’d put Ella on and I would scat with her,” Bridgewater claims. “She swears I could scat before I could talk.”

For rising star Jazzmeia Horn, Fitzgerald’s scatting has proven an essential study. “The first time I scatted, I was horrible,” she admits. “I didn’t know there were changes and a formula for improvisation. I didn’t understand vocabulary or theory. Ella showed me that placement is important, as is phrasing and timbre. If it weren’t for her I probably wouldn’t be an improviser. She gave me the OK to scat.”

Reeves concurs. “There are others who [scatted] in different ways, but Ella could not only improvise over a song but [do] brilliant variations on the song’s themes that would pull you right in,” she says. “She gave every other singer after her license.”

Thankfully, producer and manager Norman Granz—founder of Verve and, later, Pablo, and the principal architect of Fitzgerald’s career—had a famous predilection for recording concerts. Hence the incredible wealth of live Fitzgerald albums, with more surfacing every year (see p. 41). As superb as she was in the studio, her live sessions reveal her truest colors, each showcasing her improvisational legerdemain; respect for and seamless unity with her fellow musicians, whether trio or orchestra; and adoration for her audiences. Study her concert performances at your own risk, Austin says, half-jokingly: “It’s not anything you want to do unless you’re very, very secure about your talent, because it will make you want to leave whatever you’re doing and become a dogcatcher or postman.”

Onstage, says Reeves, “She was raw and uninhibited, letting the universe speak through her. She made [it] so that the magic of the evening involved everyone. Even when she forgot the lyrics it didn’t matter, because the whole thing was a story in the moment, creating something alive. And the joy she felt! She invited the audience and the band to be part of that, and it created something unique every night.”

Bridgewater, too, values Fitzgerald’s flubs, for more personal reasons. “I love how she’d go up on words, like her famous version of ‘Mack the Knife.’ We call that ‘road rot.’ It happens to me, and thank goodness I listened to Ella, so I knew it was OK. When I forget, I try to do an Ella moment [and] make up lyrics and scat.”

Carter considers her effect on audiences transformative. “She had such a gift,” she says. “People were mesmerized by her. … Even though she was really shy and quiet, when you watched her onstage it was like a party; she was the hostess and you were invited into her living room. … You could feel the love always, not only because she was such an incredible musician. People were healed and uplifted in her presence. That’s important to know. We’re not just playing or singing at people. It’s a shared experience.”

Was Ella the Greatest?

Is Fitzgerald, as is often postulated, the finest jazz singer of all time? Many, if not most, vocalists agree with Bing Crosby’s famous hosanna: “Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all.” But there are contrarians. Elling, for instance, is more cautious in his estimation (and reserves top honors for Fitzgerald’s frequent recording mate, Louis Armstrong). Asked to comment on her seemingly tremendous dexterity, he replies, “I’m not sure she was as diverse a talent as [the] question implies. I certainly have a hard time hearing the kind of pathos in her work that you can hear in Nina Simone’s recordings, or the kind of jive bemusement you can hear in Anita O’Day or Annie Ross, or even the kind of acerbic self-awareness you hear in Carmen [McRae]. Yeah, Ella could swing, scat and sing pretty. But to be honest, I think that’s it. I don’t mean to belittle those three things—far from it. But as with most singers, Ella found the two or three emotions she could best convey through music and she hyper-focused on them.”

Still, as Reeves says, “She set the bar pretty high.”

One hundred years on, why does Fitzgerald still matter? “She laid down the blueprint, not just for singers but for all musicians,” Marie says. “If there’s meat on the bones of a song, she [showed] how to rip it off or how to caress it, whatever the song called for. And we can all take a lesson from her humility and her modesty.”

Or, as Austin answers, “It’s impossible to be on the receiving end of her talent and not be absorbed and fascinated by it. When a singer is that real, with that much heart and soul, you have to surrender to the genius of it.”

Read Christopher Loudon’s story on the remarkable similarities and essential divergences of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

Read Christopher Loudon’s recommendations on the best albums by Ella Fitzgerald.