Monday, April 26, 2021

Poems and Paeans for Ella—National Poetry Month 2021

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

Ella Fitzgerald, the incomparable jazz singer whose career spanned decades would have turned 104 years old yesterday.  As usual there were plenty of tributes for the beloved First Lady of Song.

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.  Two of those I selected for birthday tribute were penned by Beat influenced poets who frequently perform with jazz accompaniment.  Sonya Sanchez and Jayne Cortez, are probably no surprise.  But Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska also wrote knowledgably about her showing Fitzgerald’s international appeal. 

Jillian Philips Twitter icon.

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

                                Sonya Sanchez.

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 agèd 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

Wislawa Szymorska, Polish Nobel Laureate. 

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

  Jayne Cortez.

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



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