by Kim Nalley
Within the first seconds of Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things British Eagle Rock’s documentary on the jazz vocalist, the seamless connection between the tempo and lyrics of Ella Fitzgerald singing How High The Moon and the shaky black and white images of Ella racing down the highway in a car portends that this is going to be a great film. Sit down, relax, and fix yourself a drink because this is a movie worth savoring.
(To listen to the songs in the film while reading, go here. It will open in a new window)
Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1917. Her voice was crystalline with a girlish timbre noted for its perfect intonation and seemingly endless ability to improvise horn-like lines and runs. She was often compared to her contemporary Billie Holiday, but Ella’s live recordings are musically flawless, unlike Billie’s whose live recordings could be hit or miss. The lyrics are sometimes altered, forgotten or dispensed with altogether in favor of scat as in her “Live in Berlin” version of Mack the Knife, but the notes themselves are rhythmically and harmonically perfect. Ella’s reputation was unmarred by drinking, drugs or smoking. She lived a long life in comparison to many Jazz musicians, singing professionally almost until the very end, succumbing to diabetes-related complications in 1996 at the age of seventy-nine. Fitzgerald was bestowed the honorific “The First Lady of Song.”
The next few minutes of Just One Of Those Things only gets better. Lindy-Hop Dancer, actress, and comedian “Queen of Swing” Norma Miller, who is one of Ella Fitzgerald’s contemporaries and an integral figure during the start of Ella’s career, is delightfully outspoken as she always is. One of her more memorable quotes is that when the Apollo theater first heard Ella Fitzgerald sing “you could hear a rat pissing on cotton” because the auditorium known for its raucous audience feedback became silent. Actress/singer Sharon D. Clarke is the narrator, and the next commentators, socio-political music historian Dr. Judith Tick and Margo Jefferson, a writer and critic who also contributed to Ken Burns’ Jazz, up the ante with incisive commentary on African-American history. It is exciting to see and hear female voices amplified and lending authority to Ella Fitzgerald’s biography.
While at times relying on stock photography of nameless Black children of the period, director Leslie Woodard does use mostly primary sources. He not only includes details about Ella’s years in New York State Training School for Girls, a reformatory, but also includes a photo of a report which describes Ella’s disposition as rebellious at the reformatory. This prison for juveniles was well known for the severe abuse of Black girls by the prison guards. Although not directly stated, it is fair to surmise that Ella, given her rebellious nature, suffered abuse during these years.
Ella managed to run away from the reformatory and subsequently spent a considerable amount of time homeless on the streets of New York busking as a dancer for tips. She entered the talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem with a dance routine, but was intimidated by a more professional dance act and decided to sing instead. She won first place but was not given the prize of a one-week’s engagement because of her vagrant appearance. Charles Linton, a singer in Chick Webb’s Orchestra, remarked in a 1995 biography by Stuart Nicholson:
“She hadn’t had a bath and smelled like it could have been a year. This is a fact, meaning she had no job anyplace.”
Linton was searching for a substitute for his spot as a singer in Chick Webb’s Orchestra, a well-known Black band at the time, with a roster of jazz greats that included Benny Carter, Mario Bauza, Louis Jordan and Edgar Sampson. Chick Webb’s Orchestra was the house band at the legendary Savoy Ballroom where Lindy Hop was born, and was one of the few places that allowed integrated dancing, unlike the Whites-only Cotton Club. Ella would soon become famous, recording several albums with Chick Webb’s Orchestra including A Tisket A Tasket, which she also co-wrote. It is a classic rags to riches story.
The film makes a brief foray into colorism via commentary by Laura Mulva who reacts with great emotion to seeing a Black singer who actually looks Black. Despite being dark-skinned, Mulva, a soul singer, is a strange pick for American audiences not familiar with her. It would have been nice to see and hear from an African-American jazz vocalist on what Ella Fitzgerald’s legacy meant to them.
Patti Austin also gives commentary and although she is primarily known as an R&B singer, she did record an album of Ella Fitzgerald material. Furthermore, like Ella, Austin was formerly obese and has had a lifelong career. She adds much to understanding Ella’s plight as an overweight woman who had difficulty in finding suitors because she was not glamorous and she toured constantly. Austin notes that few men would put up with the woman leaving for weeks at a time to tour and shows how feminine domesticity is patriarchal. Even though Ella Fitzgerald’s weight was a source of embarrassment for her, that and her girlish voice made her a “safe” Black singer for white audiences to listen to. Just as Ethel Waters’ weight gain helped her career by enabling her to play the mammy role, one cannot help wonder if Ella’s non-threatening look and sound made her more popular with white audiences during a time when African Americans were often seen as threats.
After a very strong start, the documentary meanders slightly due to its choice in commentators. Young British pianist and singer Jaime Cullum makes claims that after Chick Webb’s death in 1939, Ella was only a figurehead big band leader of the former Chick Webb Orchestra, while minutes later a primary source account from a musician in Ella’s band notes that she was hard on the band. Again, Jamie Cullum seems a strange choice and one cannot help wonder if Dee Dee Bridgewater and Diane Reeves would have been better picks to comment on Ella Fitzgerald. The absence of not even one African American female jazz singer as a commentator in this film is keenly felt.
Will Friedwald, a noted jazz journalist and the author of two anthologies of jazz singers, contributes much by naming each song title that Ella Fitzgerald quotes in her groundbreaking scat solo in How High The Moon. Throughout the commentary, her solo is played making it easy for the listener to identify each musical piece without the film feeling disjointed. It is a marvelous feat. The film credits Ella Fitzgerald as a genius in Bebop, but stops short of calling her an innovator in the genre.
George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, seems to backpedal on Fitzgerald’s accolades by crediting Norman Granz with taking Ella out of the trite A Tisket A Tasket world and into serious music, thereby erasing the genius and agency of Fitzgerald that the film established in its first half. Norman Granz’ Svengali-like hold on Ella Fitzgerald and many other jazz musicians is explored in-depth, especially on his insistence that Ella begin to sing Great American Songbook themed albums. At times it seems a detour from Ella’s biography, but it is critical to demonstrate that the presence of a strong white male was needed to propel an African-American woman’s career during Jim Crow. The film includes a chilling account of how Fitzgerald was hauled off to jail on trumped-up charges and how Granz bailed her out and got the charges dismissed.
Just One Of Those Things also reiterates the Marilyn Monroe-Mocambo Nightclub story that the club refused to hire Ella Fitzgerald because she was Black and that Marilyn Monroe managed to secure her engagement by offering to sit in the front seat for the duration of Fitzgerald’s run. In actuality, the Mocambo had several Black entertainers perform there before Ella Fitzgerald and it is more likely that they either did not like her unglamorous look or that they wished to distance themselves from hot jazz and did not realize that during the Norman Granz years Ella Fitzgerald was singing a different genre of jazz. Nonetheless it is a good story and a great example of what white allies can do.
Of extreme importance is an unpublished interview that helps dispel claims of Ella being a safe Uncle Tom(asina) or childlike in mind. She certainly had strong feelings about the Civil Rights Movement and the oppression of Blacks. This is reinforced by Smokey Robinson who sheds a light on the extreme hardships African-American musicians faced on tour.
Unfortunately the time spent on Norman Granz could have been better spent on discourse of Fitzgerald’s music and legacy. The four albums she recorded with guitarist Joe Pass are not mentioned despite being the gold standard of vocal guitar duo jazz recordings. And the omission of the three watershed Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald duet albums is perplexing given these albums’ musical perfection and popularity. Perhaps it was harder to obtain the rights from the Louis Armstrong estate? Also a closer examination of their scatting skills in general would have been welcome. Although neither Armstrong nor Ella were the first to scat, those two are the primary progenitors of modern jazz scatting. Fitzgerald in particular elevated scat to such importance that today a female jazz vocalist who cannot scat and scat well is deemed by some to be of a lesser, indeed different, genre than jazz. It is often the distinction between a singer of standards versus a singer of jazz.
Ella’s scatting was elevated through her art of signifying. By quoting tunes, she not only displayed her prowess, but signified how common the chord changes, or pattern, was. Additionally, she often utilized riffs specific to certain well-known instrumentalists, in both her scat and lyrical improvisations, that would serve as a code to those in the know. She created a lexicon, made fun of commonalities, honored jazz players and formed an original space for her own improvisation through signifying. One can hear the entire history of jazz in her scat solos. Although Armstrong predates Ella, it is her command of the art form that informs every subsequent jazz scat singer.
All in all, Just One Of Those Things is a capital effort by director Leslie Woodard, and in today’s day and age which has been rocked by protests for equality, this film both reinforces the problems of today and provides an escape. As one commentator noted, Ella Fitzgerald had a way of taking all of the grief and hardship and transforming it into musical joy. The amazing video footage of Ella Fitzgerald in concert makes this documentary a musical joy to listen to.
So sit back and enjoy. I’d suggest you pair it with a Bee’s Knee’s cocktail (see below for recipe).
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things plays in Virtual Cinemas from Friday, June 26 through Friday, July 10. Buy a “virtual ticket” and support your favorite independent theater.
On Sunday, June 28 author & music critic Will Friedwald, “Just One Of Those Things” producer Reggie Nadelson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author/journalist Margo Jefferson and composer, multi-instrumentalist & vocalist Camille Thurman had a conversation about Ella and the movie. You can watch it here.
Watch Ella Fitzgerald and Kim Nalley in performance at EAT MY SHORTS: Ella and Kim Sing & Swing.
Kim Nalley, Ph.D.(c), historian, playwright, and actress is most known as jazz & blues singer with a powerful, 3 1/2 octave range that can go from operatic to gritty blues on a dime, projection that can whisper a ballad yet is capable of filling a room with no microphone, and the ability to scat blistering solos without ever losing the crowd’s interest or the intense swing. She has also been seen playing folk guitar, singing R&B and spirituals as well as being an avid Lindy Hop and blues dancer.
She was discovered by Michael Tilson Thomas while singing to packed audiences live with no amplification at San Francisco’s Alta Plaza. MTT invited her to sing a program of Gershwin with the San Francisco Symphony and she subsequently became a Rounder Records recording artist and went on a worldwide tour gracing concert halls from Moscow to Lincoln Center and festivals from Umbria Jazz to Monterey Jazz garnering effusive international press and many awards.
Yoshi Kato wrote in Metro “with a flowing tone, an articulate delivery and a formidable understanding of musical principles and history, Nalley is comfortable in many a vocal setting.” She is the former owner of the San Francisco jazz club Jazz at Pearl’s and was awarded “Most Influential African American in the Bay Area.”
Nalley combines music and history in her award-winning Tributes to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and “Black Broadway.” Her play “Ella: the American Dream” premiered in 2008 and can be viewed on Eat My Shorts. She created “Freedom’s Song: Music of the Civil Rights Movement” and was musical director and curator for the Martin Luther King Institute’s Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Kim Nalley is on faculty at the California Jazz Conservatory and is a Ph.D candidate in UC Berkeley’s history department writing her dissertation on the “Globalization of Jazz and Black Cultural Politics.”
Nalley’s many philanthropic endeavors include founding the Kim Nalley Black Youth Jazz Scholarship at the California Jazz Conservatory.
How to make a Bee’s Knees using gin, lemon juice and honey to create a buzzworthy cocktail. From Liqour.com
The phrase the “bee’s knees” was used in Prohibition times as slang to mean “the best.” This cocktail, a gin sour that’s believed to have been created around that time, used lemon and honey to mask the harsh smell of bathtub gin.
- 2 ounces gin
- 3/4 ounces fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 ounces honey syrup*
- Garnish: lemon twist
- Add all ingredients into a shaker with ice and shake.
- Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a lemon twist.
*Honey syrup: Add 1/2 cup honey and 1/2 cup water to a small saucepan over medium heat. (You can experiment and decide how much of a honey flavor you want in your syrup. The more honey you use, the thicker the syrup and stronger in flavor it will be.) Stir until blended. Strain into a jar and seal tightly with a lid. Will keep for 1 month in the refrigerator.
Visit the Official Ella Fitzgerald website.
Listen to the complete playlist of songs in the movie on Spotify.
The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation was created and funded in 1993 by Ella Fitzgerald in order to fulfill her desires to use the fruits of her success to help people of all races, cultures and beliefs. Ella hoped to make their lives more rewarding, and she wanted to foster a love of reading, as well as a love of music. In addition, she hoped to provide assistance to the at-risk and disadvantaged members of our communities – assistance that would enable them to achieve a better quality of life. Ella Fitzgerald set goals of making charitable grants serving four major areas of interest:
- creating educational and other opportunities for children
- fostering a love and knowledge of music, including assistance to students of music
- the provision of health care, food, shelter and counseling to those in need
- specific areas of medical care and research with an emphasis on Diabetes, vision problems and heart disease
You too can help.
Film Director Leslie Woodhead’s website.
“Remembering Ella” by Phillip D. Atteberry discussing her recordings at Decca, Verve, Pablo and beyond for The Mississippi Rag.
Today’s Jazz Singers on Ellain Jazz Times.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Viruosa– animated short film for all ages.
A great resource about music is Genius.com where you can see the lyrics and more for many of Ella’s most celebrated songs. In this review links for songs mentioned take you to those lyrics and recordings.
Ella’s most popular songs.