The Great Ella

Published:April 25, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

Google Doodle of Ella Fitzgerald (April 25, 2013)Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe at the Tiffany Club in Hollywood, 1954

Today’s Google Doodle (seen above) celebrates a Virginian (by birth): Ella Fitzgerald. The great jazz singer was born ninety-six years ago today in Newport News, but soon after her birth her parents separated and her mother moved the family to Yonkers, New York. Virginia’s loss but the world’s gain.

If you’ve never seen it before, this photograph of Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe might seem a little random, but Monroe apparently helped Fitzgerald get booked at the whites-only Macombo Club in Hollywood. In return she promised to take a front table every night. “After that,” Fitzgerald recalled, “I never had to play a small jazz club again. She [Monroe] was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Fitzgerald, in turn, provided inspiration for Monroe’s own (comparatively anemic) singing. Unlike the actress, Fitzgerald was a virtuoso of the voice in the way that, say, Benny Goodman was a virtuoso on the clarinet. They could do anything and while that can sometimes be thrilling, it is not always everyone’s preference. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

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.

This line of thinking has been called crypto-racist. I’ll let you be the judge. I think, in the end, it’s less an aesthetic judgment than a question of taste. Whatever the case, after the jump you can find another great photograph of Ella and Marilyn (at the Macombo, no less), as well as a couple examples of the former’s music.

IMAGES: Google Doodle; Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. Original caption: “11/19/1954—Hollywood, CA: Marilyn meets Ella. Looking fit and well-groomed after her recent hospitalization, actress Marilyn Monroe (right) attends a jazz session at the Tiffany Club in Hollywood. Singer Ella Fitzgerald chats with Marilyn, who was escorted by columnist Sydney  Skolsky.”


Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald at the Macombo, 1961


Virtuosic Ella:


With Nat King Cole: