Tag Archives: Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald and “How high the moon”

In 1947 Ella Fitzgerald, already an acclaimed singer of jazz standards, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, immersing herself in the new style known as bebop. Like Dizzy, Ella responded to bebop’s complex harmonies with an infallible ear, and easily translated its fast-moving lines.

Late that year she recorded a deeply bop-inflected version of How high the moon that was based on one of her offhand improvisations. The producer Milt Gabier recalled “We taped it in my office on a little tape machine. We had the arrangement written from that, then she came in and did it.”

Adorned with sly musical references to Charlie Parker, Ella’s playful rendition begins with a straight version of the song before doubling the tempo and switching the lyrics: “How high the moon is the name of this song/How high the moon, though the words may be wrong.” A superb scat improvisation follows that is wholly colored by bop.

This according to Ella Fitzgerald: A biography of the first lady of jazz by Stuart Nicholson (London: Routledge, 2014 [updated edition]).

Today is Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday! Above, Ella and Dizzy in 1947, the year of the recording; below, the recording itself.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Becoming Jerome Kern

Jerome Kern

While some scholars have suggested that Jerome Kern’s early work has little relevance to his later output, there are many continuities—not only in the way that Kern constructed his songs, but also in the way that he employed music to convey dramatic meaning.

Before becoming a successful writer of full scores for Broadway, Kern spent over a decade working as an interpolator, contributing songs to shows written principally by other composers. In this capacity he learned to write songs to specification for a variety of theatrical genres, including British and American musical comedy, Viennese operetta, and Broadway revue.

Kern thus gained technical fluency in numerous musical styles, and learned how these styles and their diverse associations of genre, gender, race, and social class could be harnessed to convey specific dramatic meanings. Continuities are also evident between his early and later work in his musical grammar: preferred song structures, harmonic and melodic sequences, modulations, and cadences.

This according to Becoming Jerome Kern: The early songs and shows, 1903–1915 by James Kenneth Randall, a dissertation accepted by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 2004.

Today is Kern’s 130th birthday! Above, an early photograph of the composer; below, Ella Fitzgerald’s Jerome Kern songbook.

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Filed under Dramatic arts

Prehistoric singing

Styles of singing in which pitch is fixed, categorical, and independent of loudness originated in prehistoric times as a by-product of the development of musical instruments capable of this loudness-pitch independence.

The physical and consequent acoustic properties of the voice suit it to producing a range of timbres and vocalizations in which pitch and loudness are correlated and not controlled independently. To sing a fixed pitch while varying loudness, singers must make compensations in the vocal mechanism.

This unnatural, albeit ubiquitous, singing was influenced by instruments. One of the advantages of pitch-loudness independence is in teaching infants to analyze vocalizations in a reductionist manner.

This according to “Did non-vocal instrument characteristics influence modern singing?” by Joe Wolfe and Emery Schubert (Musica humana II/2 [fall 2010] pp. 121–138).

Above, The singing maidens of Pottery Mound, a reproduction by Thomas Baker of an 800-year-old Anasazi image.Below, Ella Fitzgerald demonstrates how instrumental music can influence singing.

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Filed under Antiquity