One of Ella Fitzgerald's last public appearances was in Cleveland. It was at Playhouse Square during the 1992 Tri-C JazzFest. As we listened to her that night, we were certainly aware that she was one of the all-time jazz legends nearing the end of an astounding career. But, we did not realize that within a year, Ella Fitzgerald would lose both legs because of complications of diabetes or that in four years she would be dead.
When she took the stage, she sang "Sweet Georgia Brown." After the applause faded, she said, "Welcome to our part of the show. Hope you enjoy the songs that we have chosen. Some I know, some I don't." The capacity crowd roared as everybody's favorite jazz singer said, "I may make up my own lyrics."
When Ella died at the age of 78 on June 15, 1996, there was worldwide praise for the woman who had entered an amateur contest on a dare at New York's Apollo Theatre 62 years earlier when she was just 14 years old. When she went on stage that night, she said she froze.
"The man said, `Do something,'" recalled Ella, "so I tried to sing like Miss Connie Boswell and somebody in the audience said, `Hey, that little girl can sing!' I won first prize. Then I tried the Harlem Opera House and won again."
Bardu Ali, who was playing guitar with the Chick Webb Orchestra, heard her and suggested that Webb hire her as a singer for his band. The little drummer didnít want a girl singer for his swinging big band, but finally said, "We'll take her to Yale University and if she goes over with the college kids, she stays." She did. Webb became not only her boss, but her mentor and guardian. Ella later remembered, "He always taught me that `You never want to be something that goes up fast because the same way you go up, you come down, and you meet the same people."
By the age of 20, Ella had written some of the lyrics and recorded "A Tisket a Tasket," a song that became a national hit. When she was 21, Webb died of tuberculosis and Ella fronted his band until 1942. Ella and the band played the week of August 12, 1940 at East Market Gardens in Akron. When the band broke up, she continued on the road as a single and performed at Cleveland's Palace Theatre with the Ink Spots for a week in January of 1944.
Longtime Cleveland drummer Lawrence "Jacktown" Jackson remembered one night in the 1940s when he was hired at the last minute to play drums for her. "She came to town and her drummer couldn't make it," said Jacktown. "Can you imagine I was hired to replace Buddy Rich?!"
Ella frequently said Dizzy Gillespie taught her bebop. Dizzy said he never had a better student. "She just dove into it," remembered Gillespie. "Her choice of phrasing and using her voice as an instrument was unbelievable." She toured with the Gillespie Orchestra in the late 1940s. Another member of that band was Cleveland trombonist William "Shep" Shepherd. He said, "She was a beautiful person, a lot of fun, a beautiful person to know. When you had a little time off or something, she would give a little party with food and champagne. That's the way she was. We called her `Sis.'"
In 1957, when Ella toured South America, her guitarist was a young musician named Jim Hall who had grown up in Cleveland and graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music. Hall later became one of the top guitarists in jazz.
In the 1980s, she was performing in London with the Count Basie Orchestra which, after Basie's death, was led by Frank Foster. Filling Basie's piano chair in the band, backing Ella, was Ace Carter who had spent over 30 years playing with various groups in Cleveland. Cater later recalled that those performances with Ella Fitzgerald in London were the highlights of his career with the Basie band.
Everybody who ever listened to music has memories of Ella Fitzgerald. But, there were some special memories by some Cleveland jazz musicians.
CLICK HERE for last week's "Jazzed in Cleveland"
IN NEXT WEEK'S "JAZZED IN CLEVELAND" ---
Benny Goodman in Cleveland
Here's an excerpt:
" It was Sunday afternoon, January 5, 1942 -- just a month after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The scene was Cleveland's Public Hall at East 6th and Lakeside (where the Republican Party had held its National Convention six years earlier). The attractions: the Cleveland Orchestra and Benny Goodman and his jazz band."
Don't miss it...next week in cleveland.oh.us!
Copyright 1996 Joe Mosbrook
can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3
Monday nights at 9:30 and
Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993
Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for
broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries,
and the Northeast Ohio