Ella the magnificent

07 June 2017 | by Brian Morton


Jazz world gears up to mark the centenary of the birth of a legend / By Brian Morton

These days, we like our singers to have a back story, a personal history that feeds into the song. Adele would be a good example. By that standard, Ella Fitzgerald doesn’t sound like a great singer at all. She didn’t sing huskily of hard times, cruel men and costly dependencies. In fact, her most famous song for decades was a swing version of a nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”.

In terms of the wider history of female jazz singing, Fitzgerald doesn’t stand up strongly, either. She has nothing of Billie Holiday’s weary drama, Sarah Vaughan’s operatic presence, the white-knuckle hedonism of Anita O’Day, or the fierce intelligence of Betty Carter, Carmen McRae or even Nina Simone. And yet: most singers and musicians today would acknowledge that Fitzgerald, whose centenary year this is, has to be regarded as the greatest female singer – and from some perspectives the gender qualification can be dropped – of all time.

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