Wednesday, August 23, 2017
August 23, 2017: Famous Virginians: Ella Fitzgerald
[For this year’s installment of my annual VirginiaStudying series, I wanted to highlight a handful of the many famous Americans who have been born in the state. Add your Virginia highlights—people, places, or otherwise—for a crowd-sourced weekend post for (Virginia) lovers!]
Three songs that help trace the hugely influential 20th century career and life of Newport News, Virginia’s First Lady of Song.
1) “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (1938): Fitzgerald moved with her mother and stepfather to Yonkers, New York in the early 1920s, when she was just a young girl; but it was just over a decade later, when she moved in with an aunt in Harlem (perhaps to escape her stepfather’s abuses after her mother’s death, although this story remains uncertain), that her musical career really began. She became connected to the drummer and bandleader Chick Webb in early 1935, and would go on to record over 150 songs and several big hits with him and his orchestra over the next half-dozen years. Probably their biggest hit together was “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a jazzy reimagining of the old children’s rhyme that featured Fitzgerald’s stunning vocals in a major way. When Webb passed away in 1939, the group was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra, and Fitzgerald was truly on her way to superstardom.
2) “Flying Home” (1945): Fitzgerald left the orchestra to go solo in 1942, and worked with a number of prominent artists and musicians over the next decade. Her work with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and his band led her to experiment with scat singing, a form that others such as Louis Armstrong had tried but with which Fitzgerald would eventually become almost synonymous. That style was never more apparent or groundbreaking than on “Flying Home,” Fitzgerald’s performance of a Vic Schoen arrangement that the New York Times later called “one of the most influential jazz records of the decade.” Fitzgerald was far, far more than just scat singing, of course; but her work with that form truly changed not only jazz but also American music and culture more broadly, and “Flying Home” is thus one of the 20th century’s single most significant recordings.
3) “All That Jazz” (1989): Fitzgerald would spend the next half century recording albums of both the great American songbook and the decades’ popular hits, touring the world, appearing in television and film projects, and otherwise living up to the First Lady of Song title. Any number of songs and moments could help trace her presence in and influence on the second half of the 20th century. But I’ll conclude here with the title track from her last studio album (also called All That Jazz), in which Fitzgerald returned to the 30s and 40s swing and jazz hits that had helped launch her career back in that Harlem Renaissance era. While great artists like Fitzgerald always evolve and change, there’s also a way in which they remain guardians and keepers of a certain tradition, and Fitzgerald was that for the jazz tradition from the 1930s right through her 1996 passing. Listening to these songs and her many, many others reminds us of that legacy and hers, and helps us keep them alive into the 21st century as well.
Next Virginian tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Virginians or Virginia connections you’d highlight?