Ella Fitzgerald got ripped off. When the jazz great died two years ago at 79, the obituaries all sang the same tune: Fitzgerald, the wags wrote, was a legend who had achieved that status only by maturing past the “pop ditties and novelty tunes” (thank you, Washington Post) of her youth. The worthless songs of her early career, the papers said, had been forced upon the young Ella to try to repeat the success of her 1938 take on the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Forget that Ella had been performing and recording for three years before “A-Tisket” topped the hit parade. It wasn’t until she matured into a scatting phenomenon and recorded the pop classics of Berlin, Porter, and Gershwin that Ella attained immortality.
Well, bullshit. Fitzgerald’s work from when she joined the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1935 at the age of 17 until she went solo in 1941 constitute some of the finest tunes in the history of popditties and novelty tunes notwithstanding. Unfortunately, up until now these songs have only been available as two expensive two-CD sets, Ella Fitzgerald: The Early Yearswhich may explain why critics, working under deadlines following her death, raced over Ella’s early career. It was just too much to listen to in a short timeor they were serious jazz critics who liked to scratch their chins over opaque musical doodling and wanted to forget that jazz was once America’s pop music, with the emphasis on pop.
Now, however, it will be hard for them to avoid the early Ella. Ella Fitzgerald With Chick Webb, an affordable single CD, has just been released as part of a new Swingsation series of reissued of swing greats. (The others in the first wave of releases are Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, and Lionel Hampton.) This Ella is a solid collection, even if it suffers from myopia. With Gap ads and MTV videos, swing has come back so big among the kids that jazz record companies are flooding the market with reissues. But in their rush to cater to dancers, they’re forgetting, as the compilers of this collection did, that some of these bands actually played great ballads, too. Early Fitzgerald songs like “Under the Spell of the Blues,” “I Got a Guy,” and the gorgeous “The Starlit Hours” are swooners worthy of Lennon and McCartney, or at least the best of Crowded House, but you won’t find them on this disc.
You will, however, find some incredible swinging. It was Fitzgerald’s good fortune to cross paths early in her life with drummer Chick Webb, who led the house band at Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom. Webb was a hunchback, crippled in a childhood accident. He is one of the most sinfully neglected figures in jazz history; as Stuart Nicholson recounts in his biography Ella Fitzgerald, Webb “was regarded by his contemporaries as the finest drummer in jazz,” and his astonishing virtuosity “pointed the way to modern jazz drumming and the experiments of Kenny Clarke and Max Roach.” Webb would routinely blow other bands out of the room when they challenged him at the Savoyincluding a young Benny Goodman group fronted by Billie Holiday.
Indeed, on hot jumpers like “Sing Me a Swing Song (And Let Me Dance),” “I Want to Be Happy,” and “Don’t Be That Way,” all available on the new disc, the drumming is so tight it sounds as if Prodigy programmed it. This is the happiest music ever made, with great hooks, giddy rhythmic changes, sunny horns, and a thrust that makes the bands of later “swing kings” Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller sound enervated.
Another critical gripe has been that Fitzgerald, who after all was a teenager when she recorded many of these songs, sounds too childish. I suppose that’s fair, even if I don’t agree with the assumptions behind it. Ella was never any more childish-sounding than Billie Holiday. But then, Holiday’s drug use and general self-destructiveness imbued her with a hipness that the straight and clean Ella never enjoyed. Besides, hasn’t Hanson proved that even teens can deliver a pop ditty with some soul?
Chick Webb died in 1939a band mate recalled his Baltimore funeral as the biggest he had ever seenleaving Ella to front the band. (No post-Webb work is offered on this disc.) It’s true that in this post-“A-Tisket” phase Ella was still being offered, and she recorded, some substandard material, but she also released a few classics, including “Stairway to the Stars” and “My Last Goodbye”again, ballads that have been overlooked for the faster stuff. It will be nice if the jazz archivist who put this collection together decides to honor these still-forgotten slow songs with a Volume 2. CP