Stories » Apologies to James Brown, but Ella Fitzgerald was the hardest working singer in show business / JazzTimes

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Apologies to James Brown, but Ella Fitzgerald was the hardest working singer in show business / JazzTimes

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Apologies to James Brown, but Ella Fitzgerald, who would have turned 100 on April 25, was the hardest working singer in show business. Fiercely career focused from her teens through her 70s, she maintained an exhausting tour schedule and amassed a discography than runs to more than four-dozen studio releases, hundreds of singles and one of jazz's widest, richest arrays of live albums. Never, even long past reaching the pinnacle, did she cease honing her preternatural technical, interpretive and improvisational skills. It is an extraordinary legacy-one that has affected pretty much every jazz singer who's followed in her wake and still resonates strongly among today's foremost practitioners.

Concisely summing up her influence, Kurt Elling considers her "one of the main ingredients. Her sense of swing, of timing and phrasing, is exemplary."

"Ella gave me courage," says Patti Austin, who released an excellent Fitzgerald project, For Ella, in 2002; recently completed a sequel, due out in early 2018; and has given Ella tribute concerts throughout the year. "She sang everything and I have always sung everything, which at times had a negative effect on my career. She handled that by just being brilliant at everything. As Diana Ross once said to me, ‘Darling, it's nothing; all you have to be is perfect all the time.' That's what Ella was-perfect all the time. Thanks to her I realized I could do that, and that's what's sustained me: being true to my eclecticism."

Lizz Wright, whose recently released Grace includes "Stars Fell on Alabama," inspired by Fitzgerald's 1956 duet with Louis Armstrong, cites her as "a great study in craftsmanship. I come from the gospel and choral music traditions, where words are very important-not just in the clarity of understanding what you're singing but in trying to give [the song] a read that hopefully draws attention back to the writer and the intent of the piece. Ella always delivered that. … Her technique is flawless. She understood the structure of a song; the melody and changes were as embedded in her mind as they would be for any instrumentalist. At the same time, she used all that facility to bring me to the poetry of the song-not to make me feel smart or cultured but [like] I'm being taken care of."

René Marie echoes Wright's sentiment: "There are certain sounds Ella sings, and certain phrases [where] she knows how to excavate the depth of the lyric, especially on the ballads." Marie specifically cites "Embraceable You," noting that "there's this line, ‘Don't be a naughty baby,' and when she sings ‘baby' there's something so tender but also a little naughty." Marie has also found value in watching videos of Fitzgerald. "Though she seems very self-conscious, she gets lost in the music," she says. "There's something endearing about that, a reminder that we don't always have to have swagger when we're up there doing our thing. I have the same self-consciousness, and those videos help me."