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Ella Fitzgerald And The Thrills Of Musical Innovation

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Photo of Ella Fitzgerald

                        Had she still been alive Ella Fitzgerald would’ve celebrated her 96th birthday yesterday. As long as I’ve known about her music,I’ve always enjoyed listening to her. She was an incomparable vocal talent and there really hasn’t been anyone quite like her in a very long time. The popular career she enjoyed in both jazz and pop singing set off a brainstorm in me. Born in Virginia to and having to deal with her mother dying of cancer fairly early in her life,Ella left behind her impoverished past to sing in Harlem at the Apollo Theater and later the Harlem Opera House where she was noticed by band leader Chick Webb. The local “king of swing” was given the chance to have Ella as the singer for his orchestra. He not only had one in mind but was alleged to have said of Ella “your not putting THAT on my stage”. At first he found her physically unattractive and awkward-her nickname being the ugly duckling at the time. When he gave her a chance however, he heard the voice we now know and love and Ella Fitzgerald began singing  popular swing numbers such as “A-Tisket-A-Tasket” and became a star.

                      Knowing Ella’s performances sadly through old films of movies and television only, one thing that continues to strike me about her is how connected she stayed with jazz-even while for the most part she was strongly connected to music’s popular idiom.  She would sing on The Ed Sullivan Show or any number of radio and TV shows popular with a middle American (and at the time mostly causation)  audience popular songs with people like Sammy Davis Jr. Yet one of the things she became known for was integrating a style of scat singing that found her singing chords and scales wordlessly in the manner of be-bop era musicians such as Charlie Parker. Be-bop was not exactly the music of middle America at that particular time. Yet with her personality,clarity of voice and talent Ella crossed it over without a lot of people even realizing it. Knowing this helped me to realize Ella Fitzgerald is a perfect example of a musical innovator almost totally absent from the current musical world. And its not even all to do with level of talent.

                    One of the major elements in music that has changed enormously since Ella Fitzgerald’s time is that record labels,musicians and even music lovers themselves have generally began to view music itself from almost solely a promotion and marketing perspective. Artists with a jazz back round such as Jamie Cullum and Robert Glasper seem to have a difficult time crossing over to the young rock,hip-hop and R&B fans they are hoping to reach because their music is automatically stuck into the “jazz” section of record stores and online music buying sites. This is a section only a minority of young people realistically go into. Since the demographics of age,gender and race play a huge part in marketing music as well other issues emerge from that. A talented singer/songwriter/ musician,especially if they are female,tend to stand little to no chance of even getting a record deal if they are deemed “physically unattractive” by modern day recording industry spin doctors. They likely would not receive the one chance that Chick Webb,for example,gave to Ella Fitzgerald.

                   There is also a sad irony to this as Ella become a success during a similarly difficult economic time period to the one America still currently struggles with. Her success flowered during the height of the Great Depression. Therefore music promoters simply cannot effectively speak of the economy being the sole reason for the lack of innovation among young artists being presented. In the 1960’s for example the early,middle and late part of that decade felt entirely different from each other. Same for the following musical decades. If one thinks about it, so much diverse pop music styles presented themselves between early 60’s Brill building doo wop style soul to the New Jack Swing dance music of the late 1980’s. Yet since the early 90’s,popular music styles have changed very little. Rock music is still mainly based in the alternative style,while R&B/soul is still primarily based in hip-hop. As Chaka Khan lamented while commenting on her disgust with the commercialization in music during the 1990’s, where was the vision? The thrill of innovation and the need to get the public to musically stretch? Perhaps if more music careers today were handled in the manner Ella Fitzgerald’s was over 70 years ago, more creative and talented people would have a chance to play and sing their songs to more of the people.



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