Ella! "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" Shakespeare could be writing about the lift Ella Fitzgerald's sunlit voice gives us all. As the tributes grow after her passing last weekend, Shakespeare has another thing right about her: "But thy eternal summer shall not fade."
Ella and Shakespeare in the same breath would have seemed unlikely when Ella was an orphaned child scrambling to sing in Harlem amateur shows. She recalled that bandleader Chick Webb had to be forced to listen to the three songs she then knew when admirers hid her in his dressing room.
Chorus girls chipped in to buy a gown when he took a chance and invited her to sing at Yale the next day. The next week she was singing with the band at the legendary Savoy ballroom. Soon she'd have her first hit record with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."
During the six decades since then, Duke Ellington recognized Ella as "beyond category." And the quality of her talent and musicianship became part of a trend toward critical regard for what's good in both jazz and "classical" music without judgmental categorization.
Fitzgerald, the "First Lady of Song," did it all - recording some 250 albums over her career. From babbling novelty nonsense songs where her light voice didn't have a care in the world ... to giving her own measure of sorrow, joy, and sophistication to such master songwriters as Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, and Weill ... to levitating listeners with the be-bop scat singing of "Flying Home," "Oh, Lady Be Good," and "How High the Moon."
Detours into country music and other byways were not as successful as the mainstream efforts that made her "the greatest jazz singer" in the eyes of her onetime accompanist, pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Yet she continually reached beyond the "jazz audience" to become beloved around the world.
Until illness reduced her schedule in recent years, she spread the good word of music through appearances with many symphony orchestras as well as with other jazz artists such as Ellington and Count Basie (a particularly swinging collaboration), and with her own small combos. (Next month a number of colleagues and admirers will be appearing in a series of Carnegie Hall concerts planned in her honor before her passing.)
Whatever the setting, Ella was less like a leader than like a member of the band. Her singing had a patent on the improvisation and responsiveness to other musicians that is at the heart of jazz. A frequent partner, guitarist Joe Pass, has said, "I may surprise her by changing keys, even two or three times, but she'll be right on it, never missing."
When off the road, Fitzgerald supported various health charities in the Los Angeles area. A day-care center has been named after her.
Her caring for others goes back to the beginning. According to one account, she wrote the nonsense lyrics of her famed "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" to try to cheer up bandleader Webb after a hospital stay.
Long after that debut appearance with him at Yale, Ella received an honorary degree from the Elis, one among just about all the honors, multiple Grammy awards, etc., that a singer can get. I happened to be there when she received her honorary degree at Harvard as students chanted "El-la! El-la!"
The citation on that summer's day spoke for more than the Ivy League:
"In your matchless voice we hear America singing its wondrous songs of work and play, sadness and beauty, winning and losing. You fill our silences and touch our hearts."