In Praise of Ella

My friend Emiliano was irked that I didn’t include any Ella Fitzgerald albums in my top 25 for a jazz newcomer. Probably an oversight on my part! I probably should have put on Ella doing the Duke Ellington songbook.

I recently got Wislawa Szymborska’s new book of poems – Here – and was happy to see that she’d finally fulfilled her desire to write Ella a poem. (In her book Nonrequired Reading, she wrote, “For some time now I’ve been meaning to write a poem about the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald . . . Her voice reconciles me to life, it cheers me. I can’t say the same for any other singer. For me she’s just the best . . . Take, for instance, Billie Holiday, who poured her heart, soul, and various other organs into her songs. But Ella wasn’t histrionic. She always kept a little distance from the text; she never worked the song into a lather. And thank heavens. I see this as yet another leaf for her laurels.”)

Ella in Heaven

She prayed to God
with all her heart
to make her
a happy white girl.
And if it’s too late for such changes,
then at least, Lord God, see what I weigh,
subtract at least half of me.
But the good God answered No.
He just put his hand on her heart,
checked her throat, stroked her head.
But when everything is over – he added –
you’ll give me joy by coming to me,
my black comfort, my well-sung stump.

Here she is, serenading God with the Monk tune, “Round Midnight” – listen to the bit of perfection at the end:

Here she is, a bit more playful, with that flawless imitation of Louis in the middle:

Speaking of Louis, I think Wislawa is being a bit hard on Billie – whose early work especially never worked a song into a lather, but always swung beautifully.

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