An Interview with Ella Fitzgerald
Not everyone thinks Ella Fitzgerald is a great jazz singer. The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett claims she’s not even worthy of the title: “All the mannerisms of the jazz singer are there…but they are merely an extremely skillful overlay that invariably leaves her materials unchanged.” In What Jazz Is All About, historian Lillian Erlich says that Fitzgerald is usually considered “the best of all popular singers rather than a true jazz performer.”
Yes, the categorists have had a tough time with Fitzgerald ever since she began singing professionally in the 1930s. She doesn’t fit the mold of the suffering jazz artist, and her work has none of the dark power associated with tragic heroines like Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith or Dinah Washington. Her sunny style doesn’t allow for irony, or drama, or ambiguity in her interpretation of a lyric. It’s notable that Holiday hated pop songs and recorded them only when she had to. Ella embraced them willingly, even making a foray into rock covers in the 1960s.
Fitzgerald may not have a gift for finding the meaning in a song, but in the area of rhythm, she has no peer. Jazz isn’t jazz without swing—the elusive momentum that balances tension and relaxation. And Ella swings, joyously. She scats; she hops over large intervals; she weaves clever quotations into her improvisations. Even on pop recordings like “Paper Moon,” she glides through the lumbering accompaniment with the grace of a ballerina. Whether or not you call them jazz, her Songbooks—collections of standards by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter—are among American music’s great vocal achievements.
So who cares about categories? While critics squabble over her place in jazz history, Fitzgerald blithely continues to tour, record and perform the songs she likes. In an interview, she discussed her current projects and scoffed at the debate over her spot on the jazz-pop continuum.
You were in the hospital last fall. How is it being back on the road?
Fitzgerald: I’m thankful that I’m up and working again. I’ve been having a ball singing in places like Dallas and San Francisco, and I’m happy the way people have received me. The audiences have been wonderful.
Have you modified your touring schedule in recent years?
We don’t work as much as we used to, but we still try to get to as many places as we can.
Are you working on an album?
There’s a record with [guitarist] Joe Pass that I’m working on, and I’ve got a couple other things in mind. Lately we’ve been touring a lot. When we stop I’ll be ready to finish the album with Joe.
What do you think of critics who try to classify you as a jazz or a pop singer?
I don’t know what I am. I don’t care whether people call me jazz or pop. I just love to sing, and I try to sing whatever I think people want to hear. Songs that fit my style.
Do you have many modern pop songs in your repertoire right now?
Some of them I like—some of the songs that I think fit me. Tunes by Paul Williams and Stevie Wonder. I try to reach my jazz fans, but I also like to reach young people.
Of the albums you’ve made, what are your personal favorites?
Well, you always wish you could do certain albums over. I like the Songbooks—it was like a new beginning for me. It gave me a chance to broaden my repertoire and make more fans. No matter where we go people ask me for those tunes, even though the albums were made so long ago.
How would you compare yourself to your great contemporary Billie Holiday?
There was only one Billie Holiday. She had a different type of feeling than I do. She had her own original style, and nobody could touch it.
Are you happy with the way your career has progressed?
I’m grateful to be as popular as I am, and happy to have been popular for so many years. Who wouldn’t be?