Watch Ella Fitzgerald Put Her Extraordinary Vocal Agility on Display, in a Live Rendition of “Summertime” (1968)

“I nev­er knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzger­ald sing them.” — Ira Gersh­win

No one ever gave Ella Fitzger­ald faint praise. We could point to cuts from near­ly any one of her over 200 albums as evi­dence for why she is the undis­put­ed “Queen of Jazz,” a title for which she worked hard in her near­ly 60-year career. But she’s bet­ter known by anoth­er name, “The First Lady of Song,” for defin­i­tive inter­pre­ta­tions of Cole Porter, Duke Elling­ton, Irv­ing Berlin, and, of course, George and Ira Gersh­win. Fitzger­ald’s record­ings of their songs played “an essen­tial role in the broad­er trans­for­ma­tion of the Gersh­win’s music from show tunes to Amer­i­can Song­book stan­dards,” writes the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan’s Gersh­win Ini­tia­tive.

What’s fas­ci­nat­ing about that trans­for­ma­tion is the way in which Fitzger­ald’s ren­di­tions of pop­u­lar songs ele­vat­ed them to eter­nal main­stream sta­tus by draw­ing on the rhyth­mic and melod­ic resources of jazz, a dis­tinct­ly Black Amer­i­can music some­times cast as a threat to the U.S. estab­lish­ment when Fitzger­ald began her career. (We need look no fur­ther than the vicious per­se­cu­tion of Bil­lie Hol­i­day by the coun­try’s first drug czar, Hen­ry Anslinger, as case in point.) Amer­i­ca may not always have been eager to embrace Fitzger­ald, but she was hap­py nonethe­less to gift the coun­try its great­est music.

Fitzger­ald’s 5‑LP set of Gersh­win songs, pro­duced by Nor­man Granz in 1959, con­tin­ues to be “the most ambi­tious of the cel­e­brat­ed song books record­ed by Ella,” Jazz Mes­sen­gers writes, “and one of the best vocal jazz albums ever made.” Record­ed two years ear­li­er by Granz in Los Ange­les, her Por­gy and Bess with Louis Arm­strong “remains one of the true gems in jazz his­to­ry.” Fitzger­ald’s voice is unpar­al­leled. She could do almost any­thing with it, from reach­ing down low to imi­tate Arm­strong’s growl to break­ing a glass with her high C for a Mem­o­rex ad twen­ty years lat­er.

Dizzy Gille­spie once said that Fitzger­ald could sing back any­thing he played for her, and she cit­ed horns as her pri­ma­ry vocal inspi­ra­tion. “She sang like an instru­ment,” says pianist Bil­ly Tay­lor, who played with her in the 1940s, “like a clar­inet or like a trom­bone or like a what­ev­er.” The irony, of course, is that horns and many oth­er melod­ic instru­ments achieved their tim­bre by try­ing to imi­tate the human voice. Fitzger­ald had the orig­i­nal; she need­ed no accom­pa­ni­ment — she was the music, with “impec­ca­ble tim­ing and per­fect pitch,” NPR writes. “In fact, band musi­cians said they would tune up to her voice.”

In the video at the top from a per­for­mance in Berlin in 1968, you can see Fitzger­ald “destroy” the har­mon­ic minor scale, as the YouTube uploader puts it, while pianist Tee Car­son looks on in awe. The song, from Por­gy and Bess (see the full per­for­mance fur­ther up), is just one of many writ­ten by the Gersh­wins that “tran­scends its musi­cal the­atre ori­gins” due to Fitzger­ald’s impro­visato­ry bril­liance and musi­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ty. Just above, you can hear that live vocal track stripped of instru­men­ta­tion except Ella’s voice in a Wings of Pega­sus analy­sis video of the “depth of her expres­sion” and vocal per­fec­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ella Fitzgerald’s Lost Inter­view about Racism & Seg­re­ga­tion: Record­ed in 1963, It’s Nev­er Been Heard Until Now

How Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Helped Break Ella Fitzger­ald Into the Big Time (1955)

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Record­ings by Great Female Jazz Musi­cians

How “America’s First Drug Czar” Waged War Against Bil­lie Hol­i­day and Oth­er Jazz Leg­ends

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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