Ella Fitzgerald

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

Early Life

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.

Career

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.

Recordings

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:

Scatting

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

Blue Skies

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!)

Misty

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Quintette du Hot Club de France

In an attempt to keep this blog as varied as possible, this week I would like to share with you the most influential jazz group in Europe. I have more recordings of this ensemble than any other in my collection and although we don’t hear them as often as many others on the social dance floor, their mere existence is a significant point in the history of Swing. Consisting of not one, but two band leaders, the Hot Club created the genre of Gypsy Jazz and promoted jazz in Europe.

 

Django Reinhardt

Born in Belgium to Manouche Gypsies, Django grew up surrounded by musicians. His father and uncle were both excellent players and he was given a violin at a young age. He also played the banjo-guitar and has credited to recordings from as early as 1928. As an 18 year old gypsy, Django was already married and living in a caravan with his wife Florine, who at the time was making and selling fake flowers from celluloid. One night the flowers caught fire and set the caravan ablaze. Django was severely burned down his left side, the damage to his leg was critical and worse, two of the fingers on his left hand were permanently damaged. Remarkably, Django taught himself to play using the two working fingers to play melodies and adding his damaged ones occasionally to create 9th chords- commonly used in jazz. In this way, a new playing technique was developed which provided inspiration to generations of future guitarists.

 

Stephane Grappelli

A musical genius in his own right, Grappelli is often overlooked due to the greatness of Django’s reputation. Grappelli spent a lot of his childhood living on the streets in Paris. His father worked for the army and had left him sometimes in orphanages, and once, in the care of eccentric dancer Isadora Duncan, where he was first inspired by music. He survived this time by running errands for the bars and clubs of Montmatre in exchange for some practice time on their piano and scraps of food. Already becoming a great pianist at 10, Stephane’s father gave him a violin when he returned from the war. He taught himself technique by mimicking buskers and learned to play jazz by listening to the few records he could get hold of from New Orleans. When he was 15, he was good enough to join the Musicians’ Union and get regular work playing for the cinema orchestra.

“My life started when I met Django… Before him I was a musician playing here, playing there, but I realised when I was with Django, we can produce something not ordinary.” Stephane Grappelli

 

The Hot Club

The Hot Club de France was set up in 1931 by jazz loving students in Paris. It was dedicated to promoting jazz, including inviting American artists to France to perform, giving the Quintette a rare opportunity to record with and learn directly from the jazz greats. Although for most of their existence they didn’t have their own club, the Hot Club often held concerts in other clubs and venues. They created the jazz publication “Le Jazz Hot” and in 1937 set up the record label “Swing”. Interestingly, in 1936 Louis Armstrong was elected honorary president of the club and held the title for the rest of his life.

 

The Quintette

Allegedly it was a member of The Hot Club who discovered a group of musicians having a jam session between dance band sets at the Hotel Claridge. They were invited to play for the club and became the house band in 1933.

The rest of the band consisted of Louis Vola on double bass, and two rhythm guitarists- Roger Chaput and Joseph “Nin-Nin” Reinhardt (Django’s brother) although the line-up would change throughout the Quintette’s career. Django insisted on having two rhythm guitars to back his solos, as Grapelli had two for his.

The Quintette du Hot Club de France recorded their first album in 1934 and were readily embraced by jazz loving Europeans, reaching the height of their fame in 1939. The war then divided the group with Grappelli choosing to stay in England while Reinhardt chose to return to France. He survived despite the Nazi’s strict anti-jazz policy. One of Reinhardt’s attempts to create non jazz music resulted in the insanely intricate Rhythme Futur. After the war, in 1946, Grappelli and Reinhardt reunited to continue recording, but as the 1950s approached, musical tastes were changing and jazz and swing were regarded as old fashioned. The band eventually went its separate ways in 1949.

Instruments

Gypsy jazz enthusiasts to this day play unique looking guitars, designed by Maccaferri- some sold by manufacturers Selmer. There are two varieties of the instrument: accompaniment was usually played on a Grande Bouche/ D hole, and solos were played on the Petite Bouche because it had a louder, cutting tone. Another technique Django used to project his sound was to play closer to the bridge, giving the guitar a sharper, twangier tone.

 

Listen out for:

  • Chugging rhythm guitars playing quavers/ on all 8 beats.

  • Chromatic runs, especially the ends of songs.

  • Django’s idiomatic 2 finger runs

  • Harmonics on the violin- they sound like whistling. (eg. beginning of Daphne)

  • Tremolo- a flamenco influenced trembling sound produced by rapidly playing a note or chord.

  • The informal jam session feel of recordings, often with the band call out encouragement or cheering a good solo.

When you dance:

  • Slow down! It’s not as fast as you think, it’s just the chugging rhythm guitars. Listen to the melody instrument which swings more. Also try and feel the stronger of each pair of quavers 12345678.

  • In faster songs take small steps, replace triple steps with kick steps. Try some balboa or 20s Charleston.

  • Listen out for the main melody. Grappelli points out that musicians never improvise over the main tune to show respect for it. Treat it with respect when you dance too- not too much fancy stuff, save that for the improvisations. This allows you to build up to a climax.

  • Match the performers’ energy: take on the same informal jam attitude. Try new things and encourage your partner or other dancers.

Every dancer should know:

  • Minor Swing

  • Daphne (features prominently in the film Swing Kids)

Quintette versions of classics:

  • Sweet Georgia Brown

  • Honeysuckle Rose

  • I’ve Found a New Baby

  • Dinah

  • Sweet Sue

  • Lady be Good

  • Tiger Rag

Also Listen to:

  • Belleville

  • Rhythme Futur

  • Swing 39

  • Djangology

  • Nuages