The cheerful tone in Ella’s voice makes her easily identifiable and very enjoyable to dance to socially, yet few dancers fully appreciate Ella’s legacy. Her musical output was immense and she popularised a large portion of the repertoire we now dance to.
“She could naturally swing, she was the cleanest swing. Every singer who came after Ella adopted her standard and her standard was the highest.”- Norma Miller
Ella never knew her father and her mother died at a young age, leaving her with an abusive stepfather and a younger half sister. She was taken to live with her aunt in Harlem and earned money running for bookmakers. Eventually she was taken by police and put into a reformatory school, from which she escaped. At the age of 15, Ella was living on the streets of Harlem. Two years later she entered an Amateur Night at Apollo theatre. That night changed her life. Amateurs were invited to perform after the formal show had finished and Ella was prepared to dance in the style of her hero Earl “Snakehips” Tucker. However when the show concluded with dancers The Edwards Sisters, Ella decided she couldn’t compete with the professionals, and chose to sing a favourite song: “Judy” instead. She silenced the heckling audience and at the end of the song they called for an encore. A member of Chick Webb’s band heard her sing and brought her to his attention.
When Chick Webb heard Ella sing, he decided to give her a trial and she was a great hit in the Savoy Ballroom (where Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were dancing). She became the regular singer for Webb’s band and he took her under his wing and helped her to develop her career, gradually guiding her from the childish “A-tisket a-tasket” style singing to ballads and more mature repertoire. Ella was heartbroken when he died in 1939 and she took over as band leader.
Ella’s life on the road began whilst with Chick Webb’s band and she toured intensely throughout the 1940s and mid 50s. Ella was addicted to performing and continued travelling for the rest of her long career.
In the 1950s, jazz was in decline and Ella was experimenting with bebop and scat singing. It was during this time that she was persuaded to record her versions of popular songs and show tunes by America’s most famous songwriters. The results are a collection known as “The Songbook Series” which include Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. (These were re-released by Verve in the 1990s if you are interested)
“I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” – Ira Gershwin
She also collaborated with the best jazz and popular musicians to create recordings of rare musical quality. Louis Armstrong is the male equivalent to Ella and they feed off each other creating some impressive improvisations. They recorded two albums together.
Ella also recorded two albums with Count Basie, and also two with Duke Ellington (one of these being the “Duke Ellington Songbook”) In fact, Ella has recorded so extensively that there is an entire wikipedia page dedicated just to her discography, and another separate page dedicated to the “songbook” recordings she made.
Listen out for:
Multiphonics (more than one note at a time) (6:57 in the clip above)
Extreme vocal ranges (she has a 3 octave range from D3 to D6)
The lyrics. You can hear them all clearly- perfect diction
Her improvisations which can often be melodically unpredictable
Call and response between the “horns” and Ella
Catch her out: sometimes she delivers sad lyrics in a happy way.
When you dance:
Ella performed for the original Lindy Hoppers, she knew her audience well so most of her repertoire is easy to dance to. As a DJ, pick some of the less common repertoire.
Scatting and improvisations can go on for extended periods of time- try to vary your moves, don’t just do basics until she finishes as you may be there for 5 or 6 minutes which could become uncomfortable.
Act out the song (especially for performances). The audience can hear the words clearly and will probably know them so give them a narrative to follow.
Every Dancer Should Know:
A Tisket a Tasket
Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey
Mack the Knife: Live in Berlin
The Lady is a Tramp
Shiny Stockings (Frankie Manning’s Favourite Song)
Also Listen To:
Summertime (with Louis Armstrong)
One Note Samba (scatting!)