The Scat Lady

ELLA FITZGERALD LOVED SINGING SO MUCH, SHE never really wanted to stop. Long after she'd confirmed her stature as one of the greatest jazz singers of the century, she was still working like an up-and-comer. In the '70s, after undergoing cataract surgery, she bounced back to touring more than 40 weeks a year. In 1986, she underwent quintuple-bypass heart surgery; the following year she was back onstage. From the late '80s to the early '90s, her performances at New York's JVC Jazz Festival were an annual event, the emotional cornerstone of the jazz year. Even when she had to be assisted on and off the stage, she could still scat like nobody's business. Fitzgerald loathed the idea of retirement. She complained bitterly about the rigors of doing nothing. In 1989, critic Leonard Feather visited her house in California and asked her how she spent her convalescence. "Staying home and being bored," she said. "I miss the road. I miss going overseas."

Now it's our turn to miss her. On Saturday the First Lady of Song died peacefully at her Beverly Hills home, at the age of 79, Surrounded by family and friends. The exact cause of death was not released, but Fitzgerald's health had declined since 1993, when both her legs were amputated below the knees due to complications from diabetes. As with any legend, Fitzgerald will be difficult to let go of. Her career spanned so many decades and so many movements, from the big-band era of the '30s to bebop in the '40s into the golden age of the standard in the '50s. Her scat was her signature, but her voice possessed a heavenly perfection that could make a poignant ballad or a silly ditty sound equally sublime. She was a master of technique, able to leap octaves, split tones, reinvent melodies and dance all over complex rhythms. Above all she had class. She never sang an unsophisticated note, and she always left a song better off than she had found it.

Even among jazz greats, Fitzgerald was a rarity: she made happy art. Her first hit in 1938 was a swinging version of a children's nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," sung with Chick Webb and his orchestra. Lots of folks during that time recorded novelties that now seem creaky and ridiculous; how come Ella still sounds swell singing "I lost my yellow basket"? In 1947, she made one of her many definitive recordings, "How High the Moon." The first couple of verses she sang straight. Then the tempo kicked into a hard bop and Ella turned herself out in a finery of boop-dee-oobies and be-oop-a-dum-dums. Scats may read like nonsense on the page, but Ella translated innocent sounds into pure exuberance; the effect was as if simple words couldn't contain her. As for "Mack the Knife," well, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and everyone else can get in line behind her. On her superb 1960 album "Ella in Berlin," she and a combo covered the tune just because it was a hit, and, in her words, "we haven't heard a girl sing it." Then she forgot the lyrics. But even her mistakes were inspired, and her demure, girlish voice became gruff and loose as she improvised. "Aw, Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong / They made a record, oh but they did / And now Ella, Ella and her fellas / We're making a wreck, what a wreck of "Mack the Knife'."

If there was one criticism that haunted Ella, it was that she lacked grit and soul. When people called her the world's greatest jazz singer, they said it less with gushing admiration than with awed respect. Sure, she had technique, but when it came to the bluesy depths she couldn't rival Billie Holiday, even Frank Sinatra. Ella simply projected happiness. She never got hooked on drugs, never misbehaved, never lost her cool.

The funny thing is, Ella led just as strange and dark a life as any of her more morose peers. She just preferred to hide it. According to Stuart Nicholson's 1993 book "Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz," her birth date is April 25, 1917 (not 1918, as is commonly stated; technically, her 75th-birthday celebrations in 1993 were a year late). She was born in Newport News, Va., and moved to Yonkers, N.Y., when she was only 3 or 4, after her father split and her mother took up with a new man. She grew up poor, but she was ambitious and loved to dance and perform. In junior high she was sneaking off to Harlem dance clubs, but in 1932 her mother died, and Ella's stepfather became abusive. Taken in by an aunt, she dropped out of school, working as a numbers runner and a lookout for brothels. In 1934 she ran away from home and lived literally on the streets. When she won first place at a talent contest at the Apollo Theater, the prize was $10 and a week long engagement. But she was never given the engagement. She was considered too rough, too dirty, too unpresentable.

But in early 1935 she got an audition with Chick Webb's band. Webb didn't want to hire her; he thought her homely. Crowds loved her, though, and from then on Ella made her living as a singer. For a while Webb was her legal guardian, and when he died in 1939 Ella took over his band for two years. Until 1955 she recorded for Decca, then in 1956 she signed with impresario Norman Granz's Verve label. She was already a huge star; Granz wanted to make her an artist. He produced the legendary Songbook series, with volumes dedicated to Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and Rodgers and Hart. From the sweetened precision of the Gershwins' "I've Got a Crush on You" to the sumptuous grace of Porter's "Easy to Love," the Songbooks are an incomparable achievement. If there could be a moment when popular songs became American standards, it would have to be when Ella transformed them.

Throughout her career, Ella married twice. She and her second husband, bassist Ray Brown, had a son, Ray Jr., but divorced after five years. Once she admitted to being lonely. "I'm insecure," she told Ebony in 1961, "because I feel that I'm not glamorous enough." If it sometimes seemed like Ella didn't have a life apart from her music, it's because her music was her life. And the depth of that connection was always present. She did have soul. She attained such heights, fully aware of the distance beneath them.

The Scat Lady | News