With the poetic world in uproar yesterday ( all 27 of them I suspect – see yesterday’s blog if you are interested), I turned away from the resigning Professor of Poetry at Oxford University with a shrug and a “silly woman” and put on a new cd.
The cd had come crashing through my letter box whilst I was reading about Ruth Padel’s resignation and it came as an enjoyable change of subject.
As a music geek, it is odd for me to have lived without some of the music that I have always really liked especially when it is also performed by one of the artists who must be up there in the pantheon of best singers ever.
I am not sure why I had never bought the album “Ella Fitzgerald sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book.”
Listening to it yesterday, I realized that I had heard almost every song on the album, many times, in her unbeatable performances and yet I had never actually got round to adding it to my, well I admit it, excessive and obsessive collection.
To start with Ella Fitzgerald herself.
There was a poll a few years ago which asked people who were their favourite jazz musicians and, by an overwhelming majority Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong came top of the list.
There was more than a bit of fidgeting from jazz connoisseurs who complained that they were both too Middle of the Road, MOR, for such an accolade.
I know where they were coming from. They were thinking of late Armstrong for sure rather than those early pioneering recordings which still stand comparison with anything that came afterwards. They were defending an art form which, like poetry, tends to live on in only a few hearts these days.
So yes, let them praise Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis and the others. I am not going there today because it will just open a geek’s paradise and that, maybe is the subject for another day.
So I wasn’t cross with their sneering remarks about Madame Fitzgerald or the mighty and joyful Mr. Armstrong.
How many supremely great artists in any form of music have we had of their calibre and how unwise of us to dismiss them when both artists had a genius which crossed genres and, maybe, even art forms.
Leaving Louis Armstrong to one side, let’s turn to Ella Fitzgerald because it was she who came crashing onto my doormat yesterday morning.
First of all, something some jazz enthusiasts can’t forgive, she had one of the most perfectly produced voices of the 20th. Century. If you think what she does is easy, just try singing along to her in one of those deceptively easy songs and you will find your voice not only doesn’t go through that range but you really can’t stay solid and, yes, loud, in the middle and keep the same tone going up high or down low.
She made it all seem easy but this makes some people call her “Easy Listening.” If anyone thinks that then they are missing a whole lot more.
She starts with a perfect instrument, just like a pianist gets the tuner in before trying to play. That voice was something she was born with along with a big face and, I suspect a high palate. God -given voices tend to come out of less than beautiful faces.
There is a story told against herself by that supreme American dramatic soprano, Rosa Ponselle, who was spotted by the great and ugly Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso. He is supposed to have told her at a party that she would be a great singer. She asked why he said that and he replied “Because you look like me.”
She was truly glamourous and she did have a great voice but if you look closer, you see what he meant. Her face was wide across the cheeks, her head was big, cavernous on the inside for sure just as I suspect was Ella Fitzgerald’s.
There have been, of course, great singers with terrible voices, Edith Piaf who never had a God-given instrument and Maria Callas who tore her’s apart and there have been many perfectly formed voices which were just plain boring.
Ella Fitzgerald just started with a great instrument. She then used it with true artistry, often under-playing the big voice with a sensitivity that came straight from her understanding of the lyrics and the emotion behind the song.
Also, she was supreme in the art of bringing the words across no matter what the band threw at her. She knew that songs are 50% words and that without making their meaning clear then she really would have been merely “easy listening.”
The recording “Ella Fitzgerald sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book” was recorded in 1957, yes, over 50 years ago, and it captures her at her very best.
Not only is her voice in perfect nick – so good in fact that she sounds as if she hardly has to try – but she has learnt enough about life to fill each song with humanity. Whether it is sadness, joy, world-weariness or world-defying cynicism, she is always there, always right on the button and the emotions are never on her sleeve either unlike many an imitator who too often rely on unsubtle melodrama. Her feelings, like Hart’s words, come from a far deeper place and they are often so intense she can only say them in a whisper.
She had “been there” as they say. Part of her childhood was spent in an orphanage “for colored persons, ” early “work-experience” was acting as a look out for a brothel and it was not long before she was sent to a reform school where she finished her sentimental education. A drug-dealing husband, number one of two, possibly three, and there you have it. No wonder young stars chosen from television talent shows have a few things missing when they try to tackle songs about big grown up things.
So now to my other prejudice!
Rodgers and Hart.
Richard Rodgers, was the composer of that winning team before he went on to write those musicals with Oscar Hammerstein II. OK, I can take some of them, Carousel with its edgy politics and South Pacific because of Rodgers’ music, but I will never forgive them for The Sound of Music. Watching the film, reluctantly, was the only time in my life when I have been on the side of the Nazis. I just wanted them to catch that nauseating family and put us all out of our misery.
Lorenz Hart, on the other hand, was the real thing.
He occupies a space as far away as it is possible to go from Oscar Hammerstein II, Hart lived on the streets, occupied a world of seedy bars, even seedier hotels, looking for love and, mostly, finding pain.
He was a distant relative of the great 19th. Century German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine who was maybe the definitive voice of Utopian love and defensive cynicism. Heine’s verse was set to music by Schubert, Schumann and the other great 19th. Century composers and Lorenz Hart is his worthy successor, just as these songs stand proud in the cannon of art songs which really begins with Schubert. We shouldn’t let the street slang, the witty internal rhymes and the sometimes outrageously obscene lines distract us from the fact that he is a great poet. I hope that the new Professor of Poetry in Oxford will include him on his list of great 20th. Century poets.
Richard Rodgers was a lucky man to have met him. Before he grew into a flabby sentimentalist, he worked with Hart and brought just the right mix of sweet and sour in a jazzy style which was later obliterated in the big Hammerstein shows.
So, for me, the bringing together of Fitzgerald, Rodgers and Hart was one of the great moments on what used to be called the gramophone. 1957, every now and then, with its appetite for sweet orchestration may have its down moments but we have all heard by now, Fitzgerald’s recording of Manhattan and, of course, The Lady Is A Tramp – they are enough to deliver immortality even if she had done no more – but there is not a loser in the 35 songs recorded here. Try some of the lesser known ones like Dancing on the Ceiling or I Didn’t Know What Time It Was or Ten Cents A Dance and you will hear some of those great and rare moments when singer and song unite in something more than just singing.
It was only a few quid and I still don’t understand why it has taken me all this time to buy it.