Dear Family and Friends:
It just occurred to me that I’ve never told you about Ella (well, my family certainly knows about her). Ella and I have been on a first name basis since I fell in love with her when I was fifteen. I took my senior prom date to hear her at the Empire Room in the Palmer House Hotel (fancy, schmancy) on Wabash Ave. in Chicago, and I remained faithful to so many of her recordings over the years. Oh, I’m sorry, it’s Fitzgerald, Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, I’m talking about. I’ve been a jazz fan all my life; have a favorite player for every instrument, and a few favorite singers. There’s Mel Torme (nice Jewish boy from Chicago), Sinatra, even Diana Krall and sometimes Jane Monheit on the short list, but no one even comes close to Ella.
No bio here. You can find that on your own if you want to read about her incredible sixty year career (buy anything recorded before 1975 for Ella in best voice). I just wanted to go on record as saying that no one should leave this world without having heard two Ella Fitzgerald albums (CD’s), “Ella Fitzgerald at the Opera House,” and “The Intimate Ella.” Ella made dozens of great recordings, live and in the studio. But these two should not be missed.
In 1966, while studying at the University of Illinois, I was happy to be invited to spend a Shabbat with Rabbi Larry and Jan Mahrer at their home in Peoria, Illinois. We had become close friends (sailing and water skiing partners, actually) the summer before at camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Jan was a great cook. Larry and I loved to sip a beer and talk into the wee small hours of the morning (also a great Sinatra album). And I loved playing with Jeff, Debbie, and Scotty, the Mahrer kids. So, I was thrilled to be invited.
One of those weekend nights, after everyone else had gone to bed, when the hours had become pretty wee and small, Larry told me he wanted to play a record for me. He took out Ella at the Opera House. The recording was of two almost identical concerts recorded in 1957 at the Opera House in Chicago (hence the name) and in LA. That’s the night I rekindled my torrid affair with The First lady of Song. Backed on the ballads by the Oscar Peterson trio and Ella’s drummer, and then by an all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic band on the last two tracks, Ella takes us on a moody and lyrical tour of Jazz standards. After leading us down the garden path to romance and emotion, she cuts it all loose singing Stompin’ at the Savoy and Lady be Good, with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz and Flip Phillips in the all-star band. You won’t believe Stompin’ at the Savoy. It will bring tears to your eyes and stop your heart. That’s how intense is Ella’s scatting. I’ve listened to it 100 times, maybe 200. I can’t hear it enough. But here’s a hint; start the CD on track number 10. The first concert, the one recorded in Chicago, is not as outstanding as the second. Listen to the LA recording which begins at number 10. And, it’s not just the Savoy that is mind blowing. It just hits you in the guts and leaves you breathless. The nine or so tracks leading up to Savoy are amazing in their sheer beauty. There is one particular note I listen for in the ballads that pulls at my heart strings each time it floats out of my speakers. See if you can find it. What a treasure.
The second Ella recording that's a "must hear" is called” The Intimate Ella.” It was recorded in 1960; just Ella singing and Paul Smith at the piano. Three or so of the songs were included with Ella as a bar singer in the movie, “Let No man Write My Epitaph.” This is the CD to listen to late at night with most of the lights off, preferably with someone you love. The Intimate Ella is a collection of the most beautiful jazz standard ballads you can imagine. Ella sings them all with such style and warmth. Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday each recorded many of these tunes on various records, but (and I love both of them) never with the feeling that Ella gives to each. Ira Gershwin often said about her interpretations of his songs..."I didn't know our songs were good till Ella sang them!"
Ella Fitzgerald recorded over fifty albums in her near-sixty year career. At the Opera House and The Intimate Ella, two very different recordings, are two of her best. No one should be deprived of hearing these two recordings sometime in their life. You never know, it could be the start of something big; you might just fall in love.