One of my favorite books is The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a compendium of information that every well-educated person should know. In its voluminous 647 pages you will find references to swing music and jazz and even a paragraph about Ella Fitzgerald.
It describes Fitzgerald as “A twentieth-century African-American jazz and popular singer … known for the clarity of her voice and ability to interpret the works of a great variety of songwriters, including Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Cole porter, and Richard Rodgers.”
Important to know, but the way to appreciate Ella Fitzgerald’s music is to listen to it rather than just read about it.
That’s why this review of a documentary called “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” should be taken as an exhortation to see – and listen to – this excellent, but straightforward, introduction to the singer who over her six-decade career was alternatively known as the “First Lady of Swing,” “First Lady of Jazz,” and “First Lady of Song.”
Toward the end of her career, she joked, “Ain’t gonna leave me behind … I’m learning to rap.”
In this solid documentary directed by Leslie Woodhead, we follow Ella Fitzgerald’s life – and her music – in a chronological fashion: coming to the north with her mother in “the Great Migration” of blacks leaving the racism and poverty of the south; settling in Yonkers, New York; dancing on street corners in Harlem for a nickel. And a triumphant career that spanned the world.
“Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” debuts June 26 as part of Tropic Cinema’s Virtual Cinematheque Series.
Surprisingly, Ella started off to be a dancer. A skinny 16-year-old, she signed up to perform at Apollo Theater’s first Amateur Night in 1934. When she saw how good the dancing sisters who preceded her were, she decided to try singing instead. The audience laughed as she came on stage, a “shabby street kid” in a dirty dress. Ella had never sung in public before. But as Norma Miller, who was there that night, tells us, the girl pulled something out of her that was “magical.”
This was during the so-called Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American musical talent, a mixture of blues, jazz, musical theater. And despite initial objections (“I don’t want that ugly ol’ thing”), Savoy drummer and band leader Chick Webb hired her as his lead singer. A tubercular hunchback, Chick and his wife became surrogate parents to the talented teenager who had lost her own mother at 13 and spent time in a reform school where she was deemed “ungovernable.”
But as Ella once said, “It isn’t where you came from … it’s where you’re going that counts.”
Soon she was singing on Benny Goodman’s radio show. And her take on the child’s nursery rhyme “A Tisket A Tasket” went to the top of the hit parade.
She was voted America’s Number One Vocalist.
When Chick Webb died, Ella took over his band.
But there was still much ahead of her as she conquered swing, turned her voice into a musical instrument with her be-bop scat renditions like “Fly Me to the Moon,” and signed with Norman Granz for his Jazz at the Philharmonic World Tours.
A Svengali-like control freak, Granz reshaped her music, matching her voice with the Great American Songbook classics like “Foggy Day in London Town,” “A Fine Romance,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Together, they formed Verve Records.
Despite her artistry, Ella Fitzgerald faced racism. And Granz saw himself as a “righteous man,” campaigning against segregation with music.
“We’re All Here,” Ella summed up her own view on racism. “I’m just a human being.”
Marilyn Monroe championed Ella Fitzgerald, insisting that white nightclubs hire the black performer or face MM’s wrath. Marilyn would sit in the front row for every performance, assuring crowds.
This largely black-and-white documentary is peppered with colorful comments by such admirers as Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Johnny Mathis. We see her perform briefly with Frank Sinatra.
We witness her brief marriage to musician Ray Brown. They adopt a son who we hear from. We follow along on the world tour in the mid-‘80s where she has a heart attack. Right up to losing both legs from diabetes is 1993 and dying on June 15, 1996 at 79.
“She was a genius who had no idea of her own genius … none,” said her last road manager.
As Ella put it, “I kept on.”
She sang the “Soundtrack of the 20th Century.” But this is not a concert video. Nonetheless, the samples we hear of “How High the Moon,” “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “But Not for Me” will remind you of the rich cultural heritage we share.
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