The Last Page

The Last Page

After Ella Fitzgerald died last June, I picked out a few CDs, played them over and over, and became happier and happier at what I heard (except in the case of a horrible album with Andre Previn on piano, and a few cuts of the Cole Porter songbook, funereally arranged); and the happier I was, the more perplexed I felt about the state of American music. For the arts follow a very strange history, now up into greatness, now down, in no visible relation to the ups and downs of any other kind of history. Who can doubt, upon learning that Ella Fitzgerald has died, which way the musical arts in America have been going?

Ella was a singer’s singer, which is not an altogether good thing. She was the jazz equivalent of a great opera soprano who can’t act worth a damn. Whole sheafs of first-rate songs fall outside Ella’s narrative or acting ability. To listen to her try to enunciate Porter’s double entendres and wit can be positively embarrassing. The reason her duets with Louis Armstrong are so memorable and charming is because his own acting talent is great enough to compensate for hers, and vice versa with her vocal technique. Louis impersonates, Ella arpeggiates, and all is swell. The gift that she does have, as a lyric interpreter, is a rhythmic suavity, which you experience principally as a sense of ease. The clumsiest parsing in the lyrics—”Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem”—sounds conversational and natural in Ella’s rendition.

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Lima