#MutualNight: Ella!

If she were alive, Ella Fitzgerald would celebrate her 100th birthday today.

I don’t listen to a ton of jazz singers; my preferences definitely lie in the direction of instrumental jazz.[fn1] But Ella’s got a special place in my heart and my ear.

I’m not a terribly nostalgic listener; I rarely listen to those CDs I still have from high scool, and even from college. But some music is so important that it never leaves.

In most #MutualNight posts, I try to highlight an album and explain what I think it does, and why you should listen to it, and maybe provide a little background to the artist and the style. I’m not going to do that here. In high school, I bought “Ella & Duke.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand everything on it, but it had “Mack the Knife,” perhaps the most perfect song of the twentieth century. It’s a live performance, and it’s just so joyful.

And perhaps that’s what I love about Ella: her singing is lovely, and her voice has a clear, perfectly centered tone, whether she’s hitting a note straight on or subtly scooping up to it, whether she’s in her lower or her upper register. But on an upbeat song, there’s also an explosive joy to what she’s singing. And when she scats, well, there may well have been nobody better. And she’s inventive–I just heard her briefly quote the Beatle’s “A Hard Day’s Night” in her scat solo on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”[fn2]

It wasn’t just Duke that Ella played with; my wife had an Ella/Louis Armstrong album, and we’ve since bought “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.” And frankly, her discography is enormous, and you can’t go wrong with it. My daughter’s choir sang “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” and my son’s preschool plays the song on a regular basis.

If somebody tells me they don’t listen to jazz, but wants to know what album they should buy, I generally say Miles’s “A Kind of Blue.” And that’s always the right answer. But, at the same time, any album with Ella Fitzgerald is a good alternative choice, but especially live albums. (In its fundraising campaign this year, the local jazz station was giving some donors a copy of Ella’s “Twelve Nights in Hollywood.” Everything I’ve heard from the album has been simply amazing.)

So celebrate the centennial of one of the central figures in twentieth-century music, and spend some of today with Ella Fitzgerald.

Addendum: Clearly I’m not the only Ella fan (I mean, look who she sang with!). But this morning, after writing the post but before posting it, I encountered a surprising fan: Mo Willems. You know his Elephant and Piggie series? Well, Willems tweeted this this morning:

[fn1] That’s not, of course, to say I don’t listen to any vocal jazz; I’m a big fan, for instance, of Katie Bull, and sometime soon I’m going to do a #MutualNight post on jazz/hip-hop fusion, including Steve Lehman’s “Sélébéyone.” And, of course, Billie Holiday is a regular on my record player.

[fn2] Yes, of course I’m listening to Ella as I write this post.


  1. Thee is nobody better than Ella Fitzgerald. Full. Stop. Nobody. I bought the 16-volume Songbooks series in graduate school, when it represented a significant portion of my income, and I still listen to them regularly.

  2. I am a bigger fan of Aretha Franklin’s music, but when it comes down to pure vocal quality, Ella is always one step above anyone else I can think of.

  3. Jason K. says:

    Ella was simply the best. Thanks for celebrating her in this space.

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