is an AmeriCorps VISTA program manager in Philadelphia
As we approach Ella Fitzgerald's 100th birthday on April 25, musicians at the Clef Club and many other venues in the country are paying homage to her prodigious career, her glorious, ecstatic voice, her jazz sensibility, her rhythmic surety, and her corporeal and emotional connection to the music she sang.
Ella's story is worth examining not only to reaffirm her rightful place as a towering American musical artist and performer, but also to acknowledge her struggles as a black woman who sang against racialized musical expectations. If you listen, you can hear an important lesson about refusing to adhere to a narrative dictated by others, one that decided how a black woman should sing or feel because of the color of her skin or the circumstances of her birth.
As a vocalist with a gigantic range and the chops to sound like anyone, even growling like Louis Armstrong when inspired, Ella often played against a background noise of white critics pitting the virtuosity and perfection of her sound against the rawness of the voices of such artists such as Billie Holiday or Anita O'Day. This opposition was based on a common discourse opposing inauthentic "white" commercial music against authentic "black" jazz.
To this day, one can find comments about the youthfulness, sometimes called "immaturity," of Ella's sound and which critics say dampened her ability to sing the blues and truly succeed as a jazzer. We are still missing a scholarly study of her as a canonic figure in American musical history, which is surely related in part to the historical diminution of her identity as a jazz musician by scholars. That could change with the biography by Judith Tick, forthcoming in 2018 from W.W. Norton & Co.
The grained, strained voice critics and audiences of the early 20th century recognized and clamored for as blues, and then by extension, jazz, has a long history serving as musical code for blackness and authenticity. This became the sound critics expected to hear when they heard black singers. This sound was often put into opposition to the clarity, the seeming "innate" cheerfulness, and lack of pathos, ascribed to Ella's vocal instrument. By a false logic, for some jazz historians, this disqualified her from "real" blues and ultimately lessened her stature as a jazz musician. Some of this criticism was further compounded by her agnostic choices of songs to sing.
A prodigious recording artist and performer, Ella worked almost continuously for five decades after her career took off with her recording of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" - literally a nursery rhyme she arranged into a buoyant pop hit - when she was 20 years old. She went on to record more than 1,000 song titles, many of them multiple times, produced more than 200 albums, and performed internationally well into her 70s. Some considered her recordings of the Great American Songbooks, including the works of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Duke Ellington, as the cornerstone of her career.
She resisted claiming any one identity as a musician, perhaps even in the choice of Buddy Bregman as producer of her first Songbook (the music of Porter) to shape a particular sound more associated with romantic pop than jazz. She acknowledged that different audiences liked the different styles and types of songs she sang.
Ella could sing a novelty song with good humor; scat like a horn in "How High the Moon"; wrench pathos, comedy, and even sarcasm out of Gershwin's "Summertime"; or soar on a romantic ballad like Porter's "I Love Paris." Perhaps in response to the abjuring by pompous jazz critics, she did record an album of blues songs assertively titled These Are the Blues. If she wanted to sing pop standards, then she would, but she would sing the blues even if people said she couldn't.
Why listen to Ella today? It is important to hear the voice of a black female artist who wanted to sing more than the blues, who in fact refused to sing in any one way or limit herself to any one type of music.
When we hear similar restrictive narratives ascribed to marginalized people, like children of poverty, people of color, or immigrants, we need to pause and ask ourselves: Are these stories true? How do they come about, and who benefits or suffers from their retelling?
In my work with Philadelphia public schools, I have seen an insidious litany of failure about public education taking hold of both local and national conversations over the last two decades. In the clamor, we have become deaf to much of the greatness that can and does exist in our students and schools.
We must celebrate the varieties of individual human expression and possibility - as Ella did through her artfulness.