Happy (Late) Birthday, Ella!

Published:April 28, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

We neglected on Wednesday to celebrate the birthday of Newport News–native Ella Fitzgerald. And what an elegant and gorgeous singer she was. She embodied the archetype of the virtuosic singer; nothing was beyond her technically. And yet, as I wrote several years ago on the occasion of Oscar Peterson’s death, this is not everyone’s cup of tea:

Sometimes virtuosity in jazz gets a bad rap. That’s because the myth of the jazzman is that of the self-taught musician—someone with street savvy, someone who awes you with his feeling, not with the number of notes he can play. That’s true, anyway, with Bix Beiderbecke, who is accused, unfairly but over and over again, with not having been able to read music. He is also celebrated for his mangled fingering and for his reticence when it came to the upper register. He is celebrated, in other words, for his lack of virtuosity.

But there is no art without form, and form, by definition, is limitation. I am reminded of the distinction Benny Green once drew between Billie Holiday and the more virtuosic Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s famous scat singing, although sophisticated, skillful, and dexterous,

finally reduces the art of singing to the decadence of gibberish. Instead of aspiring to establish the voice as a second-class instrumental keyboard, the singer should attempt to raise it to the highest jazz level because of its potential value in expressing specific ideas and emotions rather than the impressionistic gestures of most instrumental jazz. The gibberish vocal makes a mockery of communication instead of exalting it.

Ouch. But Green was calling on singers like Fitzgerald to move beyond mere virtuosity, to live up to the ideals of that old myth—to be someone who awes you with feeling.

A commenter immediately labeled this line of thinking as “crypto-racist.” Judge for yourself.