Armstrong invented jazz singing as well as jazz soloing, transforming tripe novelty tunes with his humor and peerless rhythmic sense. On their recorded duet performances, Louis and Ella make the perfect couple: he with the tattered vocal instrument, she with the burnished jewel. And yet have two singers ever been more in synch? Listen to Louis play around with the time on, appropriately enough, "Cheek to Cheek," rushing ahead of the beat, then falling back: "And I seem to find the happiness I seek/When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek." Ella has all the notes Louis doesn't, and more; but when they come together in the final verse, they really are a couple on the dance floor, cheek to cheek, hand in hand -- Louis appearing to stand still as he twirls Ella through the final verse, propelling her rhythmic flights by leaning back on his heels, shadowing her lines with his own counterpoint repetitions, punctuating a phrase with a growl. And Ella takes off into high-note ecstasy, spinning arabesques.
Like Armstrong's singing style, Astaire's was deceptively simple, a small vocal range at the service of expressive phrasing. And as Astaire made great dancing look easy, Ella made great singing sound easy. Her tone was light and girlish even into advanced age. She had just a trace of vibrato, and her music lacked the pathos of Billie Holiday, the operatic grandeur of Sarah Vaughan. On Cole Porter's "Night and Day," the static tension of the introductory verse with its beating tom-tom and single-note lines releases into a dream of pure movement. In the choruses, the note substitutions, the melismas and rhythmic displacements, are subtle. "It's no matter darling, where you are." Ella floats up to the note of that emphasized word. In her telling, love couldn't be easier.
Just as Louis had worked magic with novelty tunes, Ella made her first big hit with the Chick Webb band and her rewriting in 1938 of the children's rhyme "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." From swing she moved on to bebop, keeping pace with that music's harmonic and rhythmic complexity via her remarkable scatting. With her many "Songbook" recordings for Verve producer Norman Granz (18 volumes on CD) of composers like Porter, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, and Rodgers and Hart, Ella became "the first lady of song."
"I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them," Ira Gershwin said. The "Songbooks" turned Ella into a monument. In arrangements for her by the likes of Ellington, Buddy Bregman, and Nelson Riddle, the songs became classic texts. Oft-omitted verses like Porter's arioso introductions were restored. A great cabaret singer, known for her cut-up "forgetting" of the words to "Mack the Knife," Ella was also a great concert singer, for whom American classic pop songs became great art songs.
On the Verve collection Jazz Divas: Studio, you can hear Ella with her peers and progeny, from Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington to Abbey Lincoln, Sheila Jordan, and Shirley Horn. For many, the song is an interpretive vehicle through which they tell their own story, and Billie in particular seemed to make every song autobiographical. Vaughan and Betty Carter can subsume a lyric in their ornaments. But for getting across the text as written, maybe Dinah Washington, though temperamentally different, was Fitzgerald's only equal. Ella's unruffled presence stamped the material in her own way. Her readings were never colorless, always authoritative.
"I always thought of Ella's as the `official' version of a song," a friend of mine said a few days after she died. "Next to her, everyone else was merely a stylist."