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Giant Steps: Ella Fitzgerald

Tuesday, 28 February 2017 11:54

Jazz is full of extraordinary stories, extraordinary people making extraordinary music under extraordinary circumstances, but the story of the First Lady of Song, being arrested between sets at a gig, in racially tense Houston Texas, is a "doozy."

By 1955 Ella Fitzgerald had already established herself as one of finest interpreters of song that the jazz world had ever encountered. She had recorded platinum selling A Tisket A Tasket, she had been a bandleader after her collaborator Chick Webb passed away. She signed to Decca and teamed up with Dizzy Gillespie to create some of the most enduring musical moments in history.

It was while on the road with Dizzy that the reality of the racial tension that divided the United states became front and center in Ella’s story. The band was in Houston, Texas  It was Illinois Jacquet, Dizzy, Ella and company. They were backstage thinking about the second set, having a few drinks and rolling a few dice,  when the vice squad barged in arresting everyone in the room.

A heavy handed police force took the opportunity to put the black musicians in their place. In tears and humiliated Ella Fitzgerald was arrested. The ordeal didn’t last long - the artist were able to post bail and later on the charges were dropped. They actually made it to the second set without the audience having a clue.
It’s one anecdote in a life full of moments that would have made a lesser person duck down or fade into the background. But that’s not Ella.

She stumbled on her words during one of the biggest concerts of her life in Germany and sang on -- Mack the Knife re-invented.

She suffered through the early death of her mom, abandonment by her dad, reform school, numbers running, ill health, insecurity. All of these things  making up the depth and breadth of a life. But there was joy too, especially on stage. Joy interpreted through song.

Ella Fitzgerald died at 79 years old. This year she would have been 100 years old on April 25. As the complicated queen of jazz said...

“Forgive me if I don't have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you'll understand."

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