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Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Life of Ella Fitzgerald: BBC2 – May 30

As I've said before, we never sleep here at BSH, so Saturday night found me watching TV from 9.30pm until midnight, on BSH duty. More of midnight later. The Ella Fitzgerald offering gave us an interesting account of Ella's life and career, aided by observations from the likes of Smokey Robinson, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Jamie Cullum, Laura Mvulu and also Ella's friend Norma Miller, and her adopted son Ray Brown Jnr. There were of course examples of her music and the atmospheric black and white cuts showing the singer performing were especially evocative.

Ella's achievements are truly amazing! Coming from an unpromising background to international star who earned 13 Grammy awards and who was loved even by those outside of the jazz world.

Her mother died when Ella was only 13 years old, and she ended up in reform school in Harlem in 1933, where she misbehaved. She left there and from that time she knew she'd have to earn a living somehow.

She wanted to be a dancer so she went for an audition at the Apollo. She was too nervous to dance so she sang instead, and was judged to be the best performer of the night. She joined the Chick Webb orchestra as a singer and he became a sort of father figure. She performed with success all over the USA and on radio and had her first hit record in 1936. She did many novelty songs with Webb, including the famous A-Tisket A-Tasket. She said 'it's where you're going that counts' and she refused to be held back by being overweight. Her singing was influenced by musical theatre, blues and of course, the Gasbook .We saw clips of her at the Cotton Club, singing to an all-white audience.

She took over Webb's orchestra when he died, but it was disbanded when the USA entered WW2. Then the bebop revolution came along, which she embraced with more success, singing with Dizzy Gillespie. She married bebop bass player Ray Brown and they adopted a son. We heard part of her amazing 5-minute scat How High The Moon which included references to about 40 other pieces of music, including folk and classical works. She certainly knew her music.

She was divorced in 1953 and also acquired a new manager, Norman Granz, which was the real beginning of her international career. She made albums of Gasbook songs with orchestral accompaniment including strings. She still suffered from the prejudice against black performers in the southern states of the USA. She enjoyed time at home with her son but never remarried, she seemed to be wedded to her performing. Her son became a musician in the 1970's.

Ella had sung for more than 60 years by the time she died of heart failure on June 15, 1996, so the anniversary of her death occurs shortly. She had by then set up a foundation to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in life.

The song clips we saw included Sweet Georgia Brown; Crazy Rhythm; Take the A Train; Just One Of Those Things; Love For Sale; The Man I Love; Summertime and also the classic clip of Mack The Knife when Ella forgot the lyrics and simply sang her way out of trouble by singing about forgetting words and making personal references.

Then came the icing on the cake, the next programme – reviewed by Russell - was a selection of Jazz Divas Gold, which included songs by Peggy Lee, Cleo Laine, Annie Ross (God Bless The Child), Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone and of course Ella. The item I enjoyed most was a flirtatious performance by Marion Montgomery with Dudley Moore at the piano. Oddly I can't remember the actual song as I was so entranced by the underappreciated playing of Moore. There was also, almost an onscreen seduction when Eartha Kitt sang Let’s Do It!

What you could call a great night's viewing.
Ann Alex 

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