Billie Holiday began recording at 18 years old in 1933 in a session with Benny Goodman and was musically active until her death at 44 in 1959. Ella Fitzgerald also began recording at 18 (in 1935 as the singer with Chick Webb), but in her case, her career surged again in the mid-1950’s with the songbook series on Verve. They are perhaps the two most important female singers to come out of the Swing Era.
We are joined in this hour by Stephanie Nakasian – singer, recording artist, educator and professor of voice in the McIntire Department of Music at the University of Virginia.
“Ella Fitzgerald taught us something vital about joy, as Billie Holiday taught us something vital about pain. Each was possessed of a certainty.” – Gary Giddens
In 1934, Ella Fitzgerald, still only a teenager, won a talent contest at the Apollo. Benny Carter, impressed by the young singer brought her to Chick Webb’s attention. Soon he and his wife became her legal guardians (although he was only eight years older) and he rebuilt his band around her singing.
A-Tisket, A-Tasket. Chick Webb and His Orchestra
(Mario Bauza, Bobby Stark, Taft Jordan-tp, Sandy Williams, Nat Story, George Matthews-tb, Garvin Bushnell-cl/as, Louis Jordan-as, Ted McRae-ts, Wayman Carver-fl/ts, Tommy Fulford-p, Bobby Johnson-g, Beverley Peer-b, Chick Webb-d, Ella Fitzgerald-voc). 5/2/1938.
“A whole generation of us girl singers went looking for that yellow basket” – Lena Horne
Undecided. Chick Webb and His Orchestra
(Dick Vance, Bobby Stark, Taft Jordan-tp, Sandy Williams, Nat Story, George Matthews-tb, Garvin Bushnell, Hilton Jefferson-as, Ted McRae, Wayman Carver-ts, Tommy Fulford, Bobby Johnson, Beverley Peer, Ella Fitzgerald). 2/17/1939.
Holiday in Harlem. Chick Webb and His Orchestra
(Mario Bauza-tp, Bobby Stark-tp, Taft Jordan-tp, Sandy Williams-tb, Nat Story-tb, Chauncey Haughton-cl, Louis Jordan-as, Ted McRae-ts, Wayman Carver-fl/ts, Tommy Fulford-p, Bobby Johnson-g, Beverley Peer-b, Chick Webb-d, Ella Fitzgerald-voc). 10/27/1937.
Pack Up Your Sins And Go To The Devil. Chick Webb and His Orchestra
(Mario Bauza, Bobby Stark, Taft Jordan, Sandy Williams, Nat Story, George Matthews, Garvin Bushnell, Hilton Jefferson, Ted McRae, Wayman Carver, Tommy Fulford, Bobby Johnson, Beverley Peer, Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald). 6/9/1938.
You’ll Have To Swing It (“Mr. Paganini”). Chick Webb and His Orchestra
(Mario Bauza-tp, Bobby Stark-tp, Taft Jordan-tp, Sandy Williams-tb, Nat Story-tb, Pete Clark-cl/as, Louis Jordan-as, Ted McRae-ts, Wayman Carver-fl/ts, Tommy Fulford-p, John Trueheart-g, Beverley Peer-b, Chick Webb-d, Ella Fitzgerald-voc). 10/27/1936.
Ella Fitzgerald After Chick Webb.
When Chick Webb died at 34 in 1939, Fitzgerald took over the band and kept it going for another three years, but the spark was gone. After 1942, in fits and starts, she kept her career going in the face of often indifferent material. Her skills, however continued to grow and she added scat to her repertoire.
“Ella’s voice alone could have earned her supremacy. Her intuitive rhythm and improvisations came from so deeply within that she could neither be imitated nor challenged. Above all, she translated notes, refrains and even the pain of her early life, possibly through a musical mask, into joyousness for her listeners.” – Patricia Willard
Cow Cow Boogie. Ella Fitzgerald
(Johnny McGhee-tp, Bill Doggett-p, Bernie Mackey-g, Bob Haggart-b, Johnny Blowers-d, The Ink spots – Bill Kenny, Charles Fuqua, Ivory Watson, Orville “Happy” Jones-voc, Ella Fitzgerald-voc). 11/3/1943. (The Jazz Singers)
“This wartime salute to a scat-singing ‘swing half-breed’ was a minor hit which marked a comeback for Ella, and a small departure from her role as a maker of less-musical novelties. Listen to the inventiveness of her scatting underneath the song’s second chorus, spoken by one of the Ink Spots” – Robert O’Meally in the notes for The Jazz Singers
Flying Home. Ella Fitzgerald and her Orchestra
(Charles Genduso, Ralph Mussilo, Louis Ruggiero-tp, William Pritchard-tb, Sid Cooper, Bennie Kaufman-as, Harry Feldman, Sid Rubin-ts, Moe Wechsler-p, Hi White-g, Felix Giobbe-b, Irv Kluger-d, Ella Fitzgerald-voc). 10/4/1945.
“… a new Fitzgerald was emerging—the queen of scat, the first lady of song. Her 1945 “Flying Home” was an all-scat performance that established her among jazz modernists. She wasn’t born of bop, like Sarah Vaughan, but she was thoroughly accepted into the fold. With her ear and technique, Ella was not likely to be intimidated by a flatted fifth; on the contrary, she was now in her twenties, and the new sounds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were a welcome source of inspiration.” – Gary Giddens
In the thirties, Billie Holiday came of age as a performer in a long series of recordings with small groups led by Teddy Wilson (the pianist of the Benny Goodman Trio) and produced by John Hammond. Unfailingly the bands were composed of the top players from leading orchestras like those of Goodman, Ellington, and Basie.
These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You). Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra
(Jonah Jones-tp, Johnny Hodges-as, Harry Carney-bs, Teddy Wilson-p, Lawrence Lucie-g, John Kirby-b, Cozy Cole-d, Billie Holiday-voc). 6/30/1936. (The Jazz Singers)
“This performance can be enjoyed as a landmark in Billie Holiday’s artistic evolution, from the student of [Louis] Armstrong, [Bessie] Smith and [Ethyl] Waters to the fresh young jazz genius of 1936. Or it can be seen as one of the long series of the jazzifications of the American songbook, a spirited process that continues to the present … Holiday takes it into the upper jazzosphere by gently changing its melody and charging it with the steady, driving, up-tempo jazz rhythms favored by the Harlem jukebox market.” – Robert O’Meally in the notes for The Jazz Singers
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra
(Jonah Jones-tp, Benny Goodman-cl, Ben Webster-ts, Teddy Wilson-p, Allan Reuss-g, John Kirby-b, Cozy Cole-d, Billie Holiday-voc). 11/19/1936. (The Jazz Singers)
“Hers was an art of understated, angular virtuosity, of what Zora Neale Hurston called ‘dynamic suggestion.’ Like Louis, Lady Day made you feel that in spite of the limits of the human voice (and of her voice in particular, which never had much range), she could do anything, could take you anywhere.” – Robert O’Meally in the notes for The Jazz Singers
Billie Holiday and Lester Young.
“The chord Young struck with Holiday proved every bit as profound as the one with Basie: the musical romance between the two has no real parallels, though numerous record producers and performers have attempted to replicate their telepathic communion. At their first session together, they recorded the masterful “I Must Have That Man,” establishing an emotional solidarity that is almost embarrassingly intimate. They became great friends (she dubbed him “Pres,” as in president of all the tenor saxophonists, and he called her “Lady Day”), but not lovers—though they sound as if enmeshed in a lofty, irrevocably doomed love.” – Gary Giddens
I Must Have That Man. Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra
(Buck Clayton-tp, Benny Goldman-cl, Lester Young-ts, Teddy Wilson-p, Freddy Green-g, Walter Page-b, Jo Jones-d, Billie Holiday-voc). 1/25/1937.
Me, Myself, And I. Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra.
(Buck Clayton-tp, Edmond Hall-cl, Lester Young-ts, James Sherman-p, Freddy Green-g, Walter Page-b, Jo Jones-d, Billie Holiday-voc). 6/15/1937. (The Jazz Singers)
“For the last two choruses, [Billie Holiday] and Lester [Young] enact one of the most wonderful duets in the jazz library: They leapfrog one another’s phrases, looping and swooping together in a musical dance that recalls Lester’s beginnings in New Orleans parades and picnic dances and Lady’s beginnings as a star student of New Orleans’s greatest man, Louis Armstrong.” – Robert O’Meally in the notes for The Jazz Singers
A Sailboat In The Moonlight. Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra
(Buck Clayton-tp, Edmond Hall-cl, Lester Young-ts, James Sherman-p, Freddy Green-g, Walter Page-b, Jo Jones-d, Billie Holiday-voc). 6/15/937. (The Norton Jazz Recordings)
Billie Holiday and her orchestra transform A Sailboat in the Moonlight, a banal, sentimental Guy Lombardo ballad, into a masterpiece. “The transformation begins immediately as she replaces the song’s corny ascending melody with a repeated pitch, each of three notes (‘A-sail-boat’) articulated for rhythmic effect – not unlike the way [Lester] Young begins many of his solos. From then on, she alters this note and that, stretches one at the expense of another, never obscuring the appealing qualities of the song…” – Gary Giddens & Scott Deveaux
He’s Funny that Way. Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra
(Buck Clayton-tp, Buster Bailey-cl, Lester Young-ts, Claude Thornhill-p, Freddy Green-g, Walter Page-b, Jo Jones-d, Billie Holiday-voc). 9/13/1937. (The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz)
“He’s Funny That Way is beautifully, consistently acted, and (as should be in any great vocal work) melody, mood, emotion, voice quality are a unity. Her joyous (but salty) rise at the line “But why should I leave him…” is one of those superb touches that only Miss Holiday’s rare, intuitive musical taste could account for.” – Martin Williams in the notes for The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz
Strange Fruit. Billy Holiday – Milt Raskin duo
(Milt Raskin-p, Billie Holliday-voc). 4/20/1939. (The Jazz Singers)
Holiday’s “landmark record of 1939 became an underground sensation and then a runaway hit, the first recorded protest song to reach such a wide audience. The superior version heard here, recorded at the Los Angeles Philharmonic auditorium in 1945, demonstrates Holiday’s ability to transfix an audience with her musical enchantments. Listen to her rasping, moaning voice-of-conscience statement of the song’s last line, with accents on the words rot and crop. Small wonder that when she’d finished this song, she reportedly never offered encores but instead would go to her dressing room and, for a while, could not speak to anybody.” – Robert O’Meally in the notes for The Jazz Singers
In the next hour, we will listen to three charismatic and virtuosic jazz artists of the 1930s who unabashedly saw themselves as entertainers – Louis Armstrong, Cab Callaway and Lionel Hampton.
The Norton Jazz Recordings – 4 Compact Discs for use with JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddens. W.W. Norton 933796
The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Columbia P6 11891
The Jazz Singers – A Smithsonian Collection. Sony Music RD 113
Chick Webb – Strictly Jive. Hep CD 1063
Teddy Wilson – Vol. 1, Too Hot For Words. Hep CD 1012
Scat. Primo Records 6047
Big Band: Vol. 037, Chick Webb (1935-37). World’s Greatest Jazz Collection
Big Band: Vol. 038, Chick Webb (1937-38). World’s Greatest Jazz Collection
Big Band: Vol. 039, Chick Webb (1938-39). World’s Greatest Jazz Collection
The Billie Holiday Collection Volume 2. Columbia 510722-2
Kirchner, Bill (editor). 2000. The Oxford Companion To Jazz. New York, NY. The Oxford University Press.
“Pianists of the 1920s and 1930s” by Henry Martin
“Lester Young” by Loren Schoenberg
“Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday” by Patricia Willard
Gelly, Dave. 2007. Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young. London. Oxford University Press.
Giddens, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 9. A World of Soloists
Giddins, Gary. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Chapter 14. Chick Webb (King of the Savoy)
Chapter 19. Count Basie/Lester Young (Westward Ho! And Back)
Chapter 22. Ella Fitzgerald
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 5. The Swing Era
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Chick Webb – Strictly Jive
Teddy Wilson – Vol. 1, Too Hot For Words
The Billie Holiday Collection Volume 2
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 10. Billy Holiday, Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday (1933-1945)