As a singer of classic 20th-century American songs and jazz, Ella Fitzgerald is a classicist. She goes after musical essences, not emotional or dramatic ones. She offers lucidity, serenity, understatement-a chaste simplicity that suggests both childlike, playful innocence and mature poise and self-restraint. In other words, Ella is to singing what Mozart is to composing, Jane Austen is to novel writing, and Ted Williams is to hitting a baseball-the purest of the purists.
Born into a poor Virginia family in 1917, Ella was literally living on the streets of Harlem in 1934 when, as a gawky 17-year-old, she first appeared on stage at amateur night at the Apollo Theater. Disheveled hair, shabby clothes, and a distinct unbathed aroma (according to several quoted reminiscences) didn’t help her chances. But luck and that pure, unearthly voice lifted her into the Chick Webb band and quick stardom.
Besides biography in Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography, Stuart Nicholson also offers illuminating remarks about Fitzgerald’s music, tracing her absorption of influences from Louis Armstrong to the Boswell Sisters to bebop, or contrasting her cool, self-effacing ”outside” approach to songs with the subjective, lived-through-it ”inside” approach of Billie Holiday. Above all, Nicholson pays tribute to the ”virginal and unsullied” voice and the artistry that transcended everything-early adversity, later loneliness, racist incidents, illness and failing vision, her own weakness for lame commercial and ”novelty” tunes, and the short, lurching attention span of popular culture. A-