You will notice as you peruse the categories on this blog that the word “Music” does not appear. There’s a simple explanation: everything is according to taste, and, in most people’s opinion, where it comes to music, I have none. Certainly, my tastes have never resided at the forefront of musical innovation, even popularity. I didn’t embrace the Beatles until Rubber Soul, and I’ve never liked the Stones much. I loved Peter, Paul and Mary . . . after they retired. When, in 1970, my brother bought King Crimson’s album, In the Court of the Crimson King, I purchased the cast album of Company.
My parents’ car radio was permanently tuned to the easy listening station, KSFO. My brother’s eyes would roll, but I would lean forward as Frank Sinatra sang, “When somebody loves you, it’s no good unless she loves you . . . aaaallll the way!”
Some of us were born old.
You would think I would be embarrassed by my timid tastes, but I’m not. If you see me bouncing down the street with my iPod in hand and a smile on my face, does it really matter that I’m singing along with Petula Clark or the 5th Dimension, that there’s not a whiff of rock or rap on my playlist? Everything is according to taste.
Besides, I have a secret, which makes me rather smug about my musical proclivities. I have a favorite singer, and when I turned twenty-one, I found out that my favorite singer actually is the best singer that ever is, was, or will be.
As a child or 7 or 8, I used to park myself in front of my parents’ humongous RCA console and play a stack of records. There were some crooners and some orchestral renderings of Broadway overtures, but chief among the collection were numerous recordings by Ella Fitzgerald. Not the jazz records, but the songbooks. Between 1956 and 1964, Ella recorded eight albums of music by the great Broadway composers: Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, and the like. My grandmother had the Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen Songbooks, which I liked a lot, but my parents had the one that I count as my favorite album of all time: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers & Hart Songbook.
I listened to that double album over and over. And over and over.
I memorized every song: not just the words, but every inflection, every stylistic choice Ella made. I can’t listen to other versions of the songs without wondering why a certain grace note is missing, why the tempo has changed, or why another rendition is missing the rich Buddy Bregman orchestrations that I adore. I tell people today that, while my schoolmates were singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” I was crooning “My Funny Valentine.” And why not? I was being taught by a master.
Ira Gershwin himself said, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” Her voice has been compared to a musical instrument. No stylist, in my opinion, has better served the melodies of these classic Broadway song and then added her own twist. Don’t get me wrong: I love Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Streisand and Monheit. But Ella’s voice possessed a purity that rocked my child’s world. And the Rodgers & Hart Songbook was perfected orchestrated. Imagine me on the brink of my teenaged years, lying on my back and listening to Ella sing “Dancing on the Ceiling.”
Is it any wonder I preferred this to the pop crooners of the day?
Just before I turned twenty-one, I discovered that Ella was going to sing at the Venetian Room. A group of friends decided to take me there for my birthday. We dressed up in our finest, slipped the maitre d a twenty to give us a table up close, and ordered a bottle of champagne.
When they introduced Ella and she appeared, large and rather shy, I wondered if she would begin with a Gershwin song, perhaps Ellington, and then simply sing all of the Rodgers and Hart album for me. Here is how she began:
This was an Ella I had never heard before: Lady Ella, the Queen of Jazz, the First Lady of Song. My body couldn’t stop moving, and I managed to spill our bottle of champagne on the fur coat of the lady sitting in front of us. I remember saying, “I’m sorry, but she’s so good!” and the lady smiled at me and turned back to listen.
I can’t remember the set at all. I know she sang Gershwin, maybe “The Man I Love.” I think she sang “How High the Moon,” and I became enamored of her scatting at that moment. I only knew that, when I got home, there would be a whole other set of records to buy and listen to, a whole other part of this singer’s career to explore and enjoy.
I had the privilege of seeing Ella sing several more times but never in so intimate a setting as the Venetian Room. The last time I was supposed to see her, my folks invited me to the War Memorial House for a concert. We sat down, and a voice announced that Ella was too ill to attend. Instead, we were treated to a concert by Mel Torme. Mr. Torme was a friend of Ella’s, and he treated us to a list of songs that she would have sung. He even scatted for us. It was wonderful. But it was not Ella.
Soon after that, she passed away. She left a legacy as one of the greatest jazz singers the world will ever know. She also taught me to see Broadway music in a different light. She remains my favorite singer of all time. And, in my opinion, she’s the best of all time. It’s nice to know that, if there’s a heaven, and we can pick our soundtrack, then I’ve already made my decision at who I want to listen to while I’m gazing at the stars.