Quintessential Jazz Singer Made the Song the Star

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To her millions of fans, Ella Fitzgerald was the quintessential jazz singer, capable of generating rhythmic spunk and spirit in everything she touched. Her death Saturday closes the book on the most prolific era in jazz singing, an era in which she and three other great performers--Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae--dominated the jazz vocal world.

Frank Sinatra once said that Fitzgerald was "a singer's singer," and few vocalists would disagree. But she was also a singer for the world, loved and admired not only for her music, but for the honesty, the simplicity, and the ebullient enthusiasm of her personality.

She was rewarded for her efforts with 13 Grammy Awards (more than any other jazz performer), winning in the best female vocal artist category for three consecutive years.

Fitzgerald was not, at first glance, an especially complicated artist. Hard working, yes, dependable and prolific. Unlike the star-crossed Holiday or the technically virtuosic Vaughan, Fitzgerald sang her songs with a consistently upbeat disposition and an apparently uncomplicated point of view.

But French writer Andre Gide once wrote that all great art has great density, a richness of layers that reach far beyond its external reality. And the great density of Fitzgerald's singing--despite its apparent innocence--was its capacity to illuminate a song without overwhelming it, to honor the words and the story while underscoring them with the momentum, the swing, and the flow of jazz rhythms.

Blessed with extraordinary vocal skills from the time she was a teenager, Fitzgerald was a jazz star from the day she joined the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1935 at the age of 16. Turning out more than 200 albums, she moved easily through every corner of jazz and pop music, from the childlike strains of her first hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," to the most sophisticated Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin and Cole Porter songs.

Her voice, for virtually her entire career, was smooth and elegant, a delight to hear, articulated without affectation, and filled with an exuberant enthusiasm.

But a few critics had reservations. Where Holiday transformed a trite tune into a dark emotional fable, they said, Fitzgerald could deliver Larry Hart or Cole Porter's most multilayered lyrics with little noticeable trace of inner examination.

Fitzgerald's art was more complicated than it seemed.

"She was a little girl/woman singer," said Mel Torme. "She had that little girl quality, even at the end, yet she could tackle Gershwin and Porter and Ellington tunes, and sing them with authority and maturity. It was a very enigmatic quality."

Few people questioned her ability with up-tempo numbers. She was praised, with considerable justification, for the exhilarating, high energy improvisatory powers of her scat singing. With no instrumental skills of her own, she used her voice with a drive and power that placed her scat vocals on a par with the playing of the finest jazz instrumentalists. No one, not even the scat singing specialists, ever did it any better.

But the real essence of her art, not always recognized, rested in her marvelous work with ballads.

Like Louis Armstrong, who was her true musical mentor, Fitzgerald brought an instrumentalist's sense of articulation and phrasing to her readings. Unlike Armstrong--or, for that matter, Holiday--she did not place herself outside the songs, in essence commenting on the material as it was sung. Fitzgerald instead found a kind of lyric and musical truth by remaining true to the songs themselves.

And, like Torme, McRae and Joe Williams, just three of the countless number of singers who were in turn influenced by her, Fitzgerald rarely garbled a single word of a lyric. If that meant that she sometimes was trapped in material that was qualitatively far beneath her, it also meant that her performances of the classic combinations of words and music contained within the American pop music of the '20s, '30s and '40s represented the perfect blendings of singer and song.

It seems very likely that Fitzgerald's recordings of Porter, Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers & Hart, etc. in the magnificent songbook series, a multivolume near-encyclopedic series of recordings (all, thankfully, now available on CDs) will become the standard reference points for this music. For many singers and jazz listeners, the collections--the first serious attempts by a jazz artist to broadly survey the work of America's great songwriters--already are. Her Cole Porter Song Book helped establish Verve as a record company, and the Gershwin collection, 53 songs on three CDs, with arrangements by Nelson Riddle, is a required listening experience for anyone with a singing career, classical, jazz, pop or otherwise in mind.

Fitzgerald's last few years, after a bout with congestive heart problems in the '80s and the diabetes-caused amputation of both legs in 1993, were spent in seclusion. And the tributes and the reissues of her albums have been flowing ever since.

But tributes and reissues are no replacement for an unforgettable voice that was--and undoubtedly will always be--the very definition of jazz singing.

"She was a natural," Torme said. "She was irreplaceable. And we'll never see her likes again."

Heckman is The Times jazz writer.

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