Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Poems for Ella at 100

Ella Fitzgerald, the incomparable jazz singer whose career spanned decades would have turned 100 years old today.  There will be plenty of tributes and memorial concerts for the beloved First Lady of Song.

Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia, but moved to Yonkers, New York with her mother and Portuguese born step father in the early 20’s.  After her mother was killed in an auto accident when she was 15 she left her step fathers home quickly and moved to live with an aunt sis in Harlem.  Most biographers believe she was physically or sexually abused. 

Despite being an excellent student in Yonkers, Fitzgerald began skipping school and hanging with a rough street crowd.  She was soon acting as a lookout for a bordello and ran numbers for a Mafia run game, a common job in Harlem.  Arrested, she was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in the Bronx and then at the New York Training School for Girls in upstate Hudson.  She may have again been abused there and escaped four times and was sometimes homeless back in Harlem.

A virtual street urchin with all of the predatory dangers that involves, Fitzgerald began busking on the streets dancing and imitating the jazz records she heard of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and The Boswell Sisters.  Her first break came on November 4, 1934when she unexpectedly won one of the earliest of the Apollo Theater Amateur Nights.  She got the $25 prize—which must have seemed like a fortune—but not the promised week-long booking at the theater because of her threadbare appearance.

Young Ella with the diminutive Chick Webb at the drums in one of their famous Savoy Ballroom sets.

But the following January she did sing for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House.  Then she was picked up by drummer Chick Webb’s big band despite his reservations about her “scarecrow appearance.”  She became a favorite with the band in its famous appearances at the Savoy Ballroom which were broadcast on radio.  She recorded several sides with the band and was highly regarded by her fellow musicians.

Fitzgerald already had a mid-level hit with (If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini) when a ditty she co-wrote, A-Tisket, A-Tasket became a smash and introduced her for the first time to wide White audiences. That was something of a mixed blessing—all they wanted to hear from the “little girl” were novelty songs.  Eventually it got her in movies with cameo appearances like in Abbot and Costello’s Ride ‘em Cowboy in 1942.

Ella singing A-Tisket, A-Tasket from the back of the bus in the Abbot and Costello flick Ride 'em Cowboy.

But Ella was working, touring, recording, and most importantly no longer hungry or tattered.  When Webb died in 1938 Fitzgerald took over the band, which was re-named Ella’s Famous Orchestra—almost unheard of for a girl singer and recognition of her serious musical chops.  With and without Webb Ella and that band laid down almost 150 sides before the band dissolved in 1942 when many members went into the service.  Ella easily established a solo career recording Decca and gaining critical attention with her regular appearances with the prestigious Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.

With the demise of big band swing after World War II Fitzgerald adapted seamlessly to the new Be Bop sound.  Working frequently with Dizzy Gillespie she was credited with inventing scat singingnonsense syllables improvised around the melody.  It was her way of doing as a vocalist the riffs the other musicians were inventing on the spot.  “I just wanted to do what I heard the horns playing,” she said.

Ella in  1947 with then husband Ray Brown, left, and Dizzie Gillespie, right--the Queen of Scat and Be Bop.

In 1955 with Bop fading in popularity, Fitzgerald shifted gears again when she signed with Verve Records produced by Jazz at the Philharmonic impresario Norman Ganz.  Beginning with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book together they produced a string of landmark albums featuring what came to be known as The Great American Songbook.  Those highly regarded albums which have never gone out of issue are regarded by many as defining the cannon of 20th Century popular song.

From the ’50 up to the early ‘90’s Fitzgerald toured widely in the U.S., Europe, and Asia performing solo concerts and collaborations with most of the leading bands and her singing peers as well as appearances with symphony orchestras.  She also made many television appearances as guest star or in her own specials.  She continued to record, including two Christmas albums that rate with those of Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Mathis as indispensable holiday classics.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook--The first of her legendary Great American Songbook releases.

In her later years Fitzgerald was plagued by health issues—obesity, diabetes, and repertory failure—which only slowed her down a little.  When diabetes cost her amputation of both legs below the knee in 1993 and impaired her eyesight, she continued to perform from a seat on stage
She died in her Beverly Hills home attended by her adopted son Ray Brown Jr. and granddaughter Alice on June 15, 1996 at the age of 79.
Ella in 1976.

Ella was not only a beloved performer, she was profoundly inspirational.  There is a large body of poetry dedicated to her or inspired by her.  Three of those I selected for birthday tribute were penned by poets we have already featured in this month’s National Poetry Month post.  Sonya Sanchez and Jayne Cortez, both Beat influenced poets who frequently perform with jazz accompaniment, are probably no surprise.  But Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska also wrote knowledgably about her showing Fitzgerald’s international appeal.  

But first we will hear from Jillian Philips, “writer, poet, editor, actress, karaoke junkie, mom, and feminist” from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Ella Fitzgerald in Her Livingroom
I find comfort in a downpour.
The sound of intermittent pings
is almost a sonata, lulling me.
If Beethoven played on tin,
it would sound like the rain on my roof:
His fifth symphony forming
puddles on the sidewalk
as I watch and listen
through my window.
—Jillian Philips

A Poem for Ella Fitzgerald
when she came on the stage, this Ella
there were rumors of hurricanes and
over the rooftops of concert stages
the moon turned red in the sky,
it was Ella, Ella.
queen Ella had come
and words spilled out
leaving a trail of witnesses smiling
amen - amen - a woman - a woman.
she began
this three ag├Ęd woman
nightingales in her throat
and squads of horns came out
to greet her.
streams of violins and pianos
splashed their welcome
and our stained glass silences
our braided spaces
opened up
said who’s that coming?
Who’s that knocking at the door?
whose voice lingers on
that stage gone mad with
         perdido. perdido. perdido.
         i lost my heart in toledooooooo.
whose voice is climbing
up this morning chimney
smoking with life
carrying her basket of words
                 a tisket a tasket
                 my little yellow
                 basket-i wrote a
                 letter to my mom and
                 on the way i dropped it-
                 was it red... no no no no
                 was it green... no no no no
                 was it blue... no no no no
                 just a little yellow
voice rescuing razor thin lyrics
from hopscotching dreams.
we first watched her navigating
an apollo stage amid high-stepping
yellow legs
we watched her watching us
shiny and pure woman
sugar and spice woman
her voice a nun’s whisper
her voice pouring out
guitar thickened blues,
her voice a faraway horn
questioning the wind,
and she became Ella,
first lady of tongues
Ella cruising our veins
voice walking on water
crossed in prayer,
she became holy
a thousand sermons
concealed in her bones
as she raised them in a
symphonic shudder
carrying our sighs into
her bloodstream.
this voice, chasing the
morning waves,
this Ella-tonian voice soft
like four layers of lace.
                 when i die Ella
                 tell the whole joint
                 please, please, don't talk
                 about me when i'm gone....
i remember waiting one nite for her appearance
audience impatient at the lateness
of musicians,
i remember it was april
and the flowers ran yellow
the sun downpoured yellow butterflies
and the day was yellow and silent
all of spring held us
in a single drop of blood.
when she appeared on stage
she became Nut arching over us
feet and hands placed on the stage
music flowing from her breasts
she swallowed the sun
sang confessions from the evening stars
mage earth divulge her secrets
gave birth to skies in her song
remade the insistent air
and we became anointed found
inside her bop
                 bop bop dowa
                 bop bop doowaaa
                 bop bop dooooowaaa
Lady. Lady. Lady.
be good. be good
to me.
        to you.         to us all
cuz we just some lonesome babes
in the woods
hey lady. sweetellalady
Lady. Lady. Lady. be gooooood
        be good
—Sonya Sanchez
Ella in Heaven
She prayed to God
with all her heart
to make her
a happy white girl.
And if it’s too late for such changes,
then at least, Lord God, see what I weigh,
subtract at least half of me.
But the good God answered No.
He just put his hand on her heart,
checked her throat, stroked her head.
But when everything is over – he added –
you’ll give me joy by coming to me,
my black comfort, my well-sung stump.
—Wislawa Szymborska
Jazz Fan Looks Back
I crisscrossed with Monk
Wailed with Bud
Counted every star with Stitt
Sang “Don’t Blame Me” with Sarah
Wore a flower like Billie
Screamed in the range of Dinah
& scatted “How High the Moon” with Ella Fitzgerald
as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium
                    Jazz at the Philharmonic
I cut my hair into a permanent tam
Made my feet rebellious metronomes
Embedded record needles in paint on paper
Talked bopology talk
Laughed in high-pitched saxophone phrases
Became keeper of every Bird riff
every Lester lick
as Hawk melodicized my ear of infatuated tongues
& Blakey drummed militant messages in
soul of my applauding teeth
& Ray hit bass notes to the last love seat in my bones
I moved in triple time with Max
Grooved high with Diz
Perdidoed with Pettiford
Flew home with Hamp
Shuffled in Dexter’s Deck
Squatty-rooed with Peterson
Dreamed a “52nd Street Theme” with Fats
& scatted “Lady Be Good” with Ella Fitzgerald
as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium
                    Jazz at the Philharmonic.

—Jayne Cortez

No comments:

Post a Comment