Ella Fitzgerald at 100 — “You Make Me Smile With My Heart”
Beginning a column about Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday (April 25, 2017) on my mother’s 105th birthday (April 20, 2017), feels sentimentally right if only because she lived in the songs Ella sang, notably “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Whenever my father played either of those classics on the piano, my mother would be, as she liked to say, “reduced to rubble.”
In Visions of Jazz (1998), Gary Giddins makes the point that Ella “taught us something vital about joy, as Billie Holiday taught us something vital about pain.” He also observes that she was one of those jazz performers “who have become public monuments,” her “enduring authority” having “more than a little to do with an image of youthless (which is to say ageless) maternalism, sturdy and implacable.” Terms like “enduring authority” help explain why I never owned a single Ella album, never was a fan, even though she’d been magnificent the few times I’d seen her in person. Another problem was that, as Henry Pleasants notes in The Great American Popular Singers (1974), she’d “never been one for exposing her own heart in public,” preferring to share “her pleasures, not her troubles,” so that listening to her was “a joyous, exhilarating, memorable, but hardly an emotional experience.”
For my mother, songs were nothing if not emotional. She was one of those people who sing with their eyes when they listen, as she did when my father played. My first exposure to a “grown-up” film was when she took me to the Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By, which featured irresistible songs like “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” “All the Things You Are,” and the one that never failed to demolish her, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” My seven-year-old reaction to this long long lavish musical in which the composer hero dies was a chaos of feelings I’d never felt before. Why the lump in the throat, the tears, the chills, and then the whole lot when “Old Man River” was sung? I’d like to think I had sense enough to know the difference between the version sung by a black singer I’d never heard of and the absurdly grandiose finale where everything but everything was white as Frank Sinatra in a white tux sang about “toting that barge” on a white pedestal above a sprawling multitude of whiter than white evening gowns and tuxedos.
All I know is I walked out of the theater wondering what was going on with me and what was all that splendor and misery on the big screen really about? Was I disoriented, pained, saddened, shaken, all because of the music? How could that be when at the same age I religiously attended cowboy Saturday matinees and made rude noises at the first hint of “mush” or the nasal crooning of Gene Autry? Since Till the Clouds Roll By also had Lena Horne singing “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man” and “Why Was I Born” along with the two “Old Man Rivers,” this epic Hollywood confection (James Agee compared it to a “maple walnut on vanilla” sundae with all the trimmings) was also my introduction to the blues. My sense of the word at that time was all about what happened to my mother when she got the news that her brother had been killed in World War II. I witnessed the moment first-hand. I was standing just behind her, age four, as she opened the door to the woman from the Red Cross. Years after that, whenever I found her crying about something, she’d tell me, “Don’t worry, I’m just feeling blue” or “It’s just the blues.” As if the blues were a seasonal disorder, like rainy weather.
“Feeling the Music”
Even as they celebrate Ella’s greatness, Gary Giddins and Henry Pleasants don’t dispute the notion that she’s uncomfortable with the blues. Referring to her “misguided” 1963 album, These Are the Blues, Giddins mentions “her ongoing detachment from the funk and drama of the blues,” which by then “were the last thing anyone associated with the First Lady of Swing.” There also appears to be a connection between this failing and her reluctance to talk about her personal history. The New York Times review of Stuart Nicholson’s 1994 biography, First Lady of Jazz, refers to how “if pressed, she would pull out the tale ‘of a we-were-poor-but-happy childhood and of a mother always on hand with homespun philosophy to soothe the growing pains of childhood.’” The less savory side of the story, according to the Times, shows “a grimy little street singer and ragamuffin. She left a bullying stepfather, earned pocket money running the numbers and warning prostitutes when the police came near, dropped out of school, and ran away from the orphanage to which the Board of Education had sent her. She lived by singing and dancing on the street corners of Harlem.” In one of the breakthrough moments of her life, winning Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at 16, she was wearing “men’s boots and cast-off clothes.”
Sliding Into Her Voice
I’ve been taking late-night YouTube tours of Ella, as well as listening to CDs from the library. The idea that she’s somehow emotionally wanting is hard to take seriously when she’s singing a ballad with such prayerful intimacy that you seem to feel her breath on the back of your neck. Here she is at 2 a.m. singing Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” which Giddins cites after observing that Hart “wrote love songs for people who didn’t expect to be loved.” In the two interpretations I know best, by Chet Baker and Frank Sinatra, neither singer bothers with the somewhat awkward introduction and its use of “Thou” and “thy,” plus the jarring diction of phrases like “fine feathered friend” and “slightly dopey gent” who “his virtue doth parade.” Ella does girlish lilting wonders with those untuneful words. “I just want to slide into her voice,” says one of the YouTube bloggers. Another commenter simply quotes the lyric, “You make me smile with my heart.”
Joy and Pain
Here’s Ella in 1958, age 41, singing Harold Arlen’s “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” on a TV clip, apparently from a late-night variety show. No doubt aware that there were those who thought she and the blues were not on speaking terms, she gives the song a relaxed, mellow, almost elegaic reading, as if the issue of rights were a mere subtext to the melody. Online it’s easy to make quick comparisons. Sarah Vaughan’s rendition is gutsy and in your face. The version I know best is Billie Holiday’s, but since it can be said that Billie is the blues, making comparisons seems pointless. The singer who does the most with the song is Judy Garland, who lives, dies, is reborn, ascends to heaven, and comes back to earth, landing with a smile knowing she’s given you everything she has, put herself body and soul on the line, blowing questions of terminology to the winds. Thinking of Gary Giddins’s insight about Ella teaching joy and Billie pain, I find Garland doing both, just as Charlie Parker does whenever, whatever, he plays, ultimately elevating everything, even the blues, beyond genre. But then so does Ella when she tears into “St. Louis Blues” during the birthday concert that took place in Rome on April 25, 1958. Soaring from words to scat to screams of sheer joy, she makes her case, “If people wonder what I’m singing, what I’m swinging, believe it or not it’s the ‘St. Louis Blues!’”
Whistling and Humming
As far as I know, my mother never heard what Ella Fitzgerald or Judy Garland could do with the songs my father played to such devastating effect. The only singer who could regularly accomplish that much emotional demolition was her favorite, Sarah Vaughan, who we saw together several nights at Birdland. The one song my mother seemed to take into herself, her song, part of her personal history, was Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year,” as sung, owned, inhabited by “the Divine Sarah.” Of all the tunes I’d hear her humming or whistling or singing to herself around the house, that was the melody of choice. Having been listening to Ella’s version lately, I’ve been going around this house incessantly humming and whistling it (a habit I picked up from guess who), along with “My Funny Valentine,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” one of those songs that really does make love to the “object of your affection.” I’ve listened to versions by Ella, Sarah, and Judy (with Bing Crosby), but nothing equals the moment in Swing Time when Fred Astaire sits down at the piano and begins singing it to Ginger Rogers, who is in the next room. They’ve had a misunderstanding. He was on his way out the door. Then he sings, “Some day … I will feel a glow … just thinking of you …” And you see Ginger listening. She’s the one who’s glowing. The music’s making love to her.
It’s one of life’s joys, to have these songs for company, and to know that through the music you’re in touch with someone who also knew them by heart, whistled and hummed and sometimes softly sang, from “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year,” words like “You have left me … and where is our April of old?”
To get an idea of the numerous events taking place this year to commemorate Ella Fitzgerald’s centenary, check her website ellafitzgerald.com.