From the Archive: Ella Without Tears

On the occasion of what would have been Ella Fitzgerald’s 97th birthday, I’m posting this mildly-annotated tribute I wrote for Newsday shortly after she died in July, 1996. Some of the questions raised in this piece remain open, except for whether she still matters to people today. She does.  Ella at the mike   SIXTEEN DAYS have passed since Ella Fitzgerald died, and I still find prevailing among people of several generations a deep sadness over the loss. There’s wistfulness about Fitzgerald’s passing. I can’t recall encountering so many people in so many places who have spontaneously expressed their sense of loss for a departed jazz-pop icon – and I don’t expect to hear as many until we say farewell to Sinatra. (NOTE: Two years afterward, we did — and I did.)

What makes such an outpouring of grief more remarkable is that Fitzgerald spent most of her last years in the shadows of public life, stripped of her eyesight and physical mobility by several bouts with diabetes-related illnesses. In 1993 both of her legs were amputated. Yet, this slow fade seemed crueler than someone of Fitzgerald’s majestic effervescence and unfailing grace deserved. Which, in the hearts of many, only magnified the poignancy of her death. Now that tears have begun to dry, it seems time to assess the Ella Fitzgerald legacy.

I’ve encountered at least one skeptic in recent days. The opinion of this educated fellow – an exception to the widespread sentiment toward Fitzgerald following her death – is that she is a candidate for the century’s most overrated jazz singer. His reasons, roughly summarized: Don’t tell me how innovative she was as a scat singer! She did the same scatting on every song! Betty Carter is so much better! Ella was predictable by comparison! And don’t tell me she was a true artist! She was an entertainer at best! She never invested any song with true sensibility or meaning, like Billie Holiday! She just reached into the same bag of crowd-pleasing tricks. And you can’t deny that her vocal range wasn’t all that wide. She sounded like a little girl most of the time. People love that! No wonder she was popular! But greatness isn’t a popularity contest . . .

Well. Where does one begin to hack away at such ferocious revisionism? Probably by saying that none of his arguments are all that new.

I know this, because not so long ago I agreed with many of them, especially the stuff about Fitzgerald’s investing no true sensibility or meaning into a song. The technical proficiency that dazzled me as a child, the bubbly warmth she put forth in both her live and recorded performances seemed – as I grew older and compared her to other singers – to be manifestations of an emotionally evasive personality. Frequently, I wanted to shout back at the record player, “Come on, Ella! Give it up! Show us your scars!”

It didn’t help that there was much about her personal life that was mysterious, starting with her date of birth. (Though Fitzgerald’s age at the time of her death was reported by many to be 78, court records in her Newport News, Va., birthplace confirm that she was born April 25, 1917, making her a year older.) There was real drama in her meteoric rise from poverty to 1930s stardom with the Chick Webb orchestra, in her taking command of the band after Webb’s death and in her slow, steep ascension to international stardom. But if there was any trace of emotional tribulation or hardship that accompanied Fitzgerald on her life’s journey, forget about finding it in her music – or, for that matter, in anything written or published about her life. (British critic Stuart Nicholson’s 1993 biography, “Ella Fitzgerald,” available in DaCapo paperback, is the best available source – and even he had trouble breaking through the barrier of privacy that was diligently maintained by Fitzgerald practically to the very end.)

Fitzgerald’s limited vocal range is a point I’ll readily concede to our revisionist friend. I never quite bought the claims of those old Memorex recording-tape commercials that Fitzgerald could break a wine glass with the ballistic surge of her voice. Sarah Vaughan could, for sure. But Ella? Yes, she had perfect pitch, a clean, clear delivery and air-tight rhythmic control. But her voice never threatened the edges of outer space like that of a great soprano or contralto.

And so what? In jazz music, what matters is not what you bring to the table, but what you do with it when you arrive. Fitzgerald drew upon a seemingly inexhaustible supply of enthusiasm and ingenuity and, in the process, fashioned a persona that kept her concert audiences on the edge of their seats, wondering what turn of phrase or cheeky reference she’d throw out next. Such gifts, as critic Martin Williams once wrote, may belong more to melodrama than genuine tragedy. But not even Williams’ imperious standards could withstand the assaults of Fitzgerald’s dynamism.

“For me,” Williams wrote, “hers is the stuff of joy, a joy that is profound and ever replenished – perhaps from the self-discovery that, for all her equipment as a singer’s singer, she is absolutely incapable of holding anything back.” (Italics mine.) Even the “little girl” characteristics cited as grievances against Fitzgerald’s artistry can be used to support the case for her staying power.

As long as there is curiosity about the classic American popular song of the 20th Century, there will be listeners who want a singer who can convey their appeal of that music with a child’s unadorned sense of discovery. Many of us who grew up loving the songs of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins did so because of Fitzgerald’s inviting, affectionate and solicitous interpretations. Years from now those songbooks will be consulted about the great songs the way the dictionary is used to look up words.

So while I once wondered about Fitzgerald’s depth of passion or range of resources, I now believe there is emotional transcendence to be found in her euphoric invention. (A memo to our revisionist friend: Ask Betty Carter sometime whether she thinks Ella is overrated. Chances are good she’ll tell you no . . . and then rip your head off for suggesting otherwise.) Yet, this virtue, along with many others, doesn’t account for the widespread lingering sadness that people feel about Fitzgerald’s departure.

So what does? Nostalgia? We’re getting warmer, but the word alone doesn’t quite fit. I suspect what we mourn is more than the loss of a singer. Fitzgerald’s death is just part of our steadily eroding connection with the very notion of song as an ordered pattern of melody, harmony, emotion and intellect, expressing who we are and how we feel at any given moment. Nowadays, just a heavy beat with a few vague chords seems enough to satisfy those who want emotional and physical release – or, worse yet, simple gratification.

When Ella Fitzgerald or, indeed, any other icon from a more romantic and optimistic era leaves us, we feel abandoned – and a little panicky. We look around and wonder who’s able to connect with our emotions as they deepen and ripen to uneasy maturity.

Meanwhile, we’ll have the imposing pile of recordings Fitzgerald left behind. We’ll lose ourselves in them over and over again, while harboring the suspicion that she may have taken all the depth and most of the possibilities of American pop music with her to the grave. I was wrong about Ella. I hope I’m just as wrong about this. Copyright 1996 Newsday, Inc.