Ella-Arlen907

COLE PORTER was known to write withering letters to artists who got too creative with his songs; the same offense would send Richard Rodgers into high dudgeon. But Harold Arlen’s true loves were jazz and the blues, and he loved it when an artist of Ella Fitzgerald’s stature got hold of his songs and took flight.

The sixth volume of Ella's historic Song Book series was devoted to Arlen (1905-1986)
– a composer who wrote just as comfortably for the all-black revues at the Cotton Club as he did for The Wizard of Oz. This cantor’s son from Buffalo (born Hyman Arluck) spent seventeen years as a Hollywood songwriter, and even longer as a composer of Broadway scores (St. Louis Woman, House of Flowers, Bloomer Girl). But jazz was a lifelong magnet for Arlen, and it informed almost everything he wrote. As a youth he’d watched ragtime blossom into Dixieland, and the rhythms tantalized him; meanwhile, his father’s singing had whet in him a taste for improvisation. Arlen quit high school to play ragtime piano in saloons; around 1924 he brought his own jazz band into Manhattan.

Five years later he wrote his first song, “Get Happy.” It became an instant hit. Quickly he entered the charmed circle of pop songwriting masters. “Get Happy” defined the Arlen style, in which blues and exultation go hand in hand. His tunes have a built-in swing feel; their chords invite improvisation. The glee he poured into many of them is contagious. Yet Arlen was also a son of the blues; to him, trouble was either lurking in the shadows or right there in your face. “The blues is hanging over my head,” he explained. That’s why a song as upbeat as “Come Rain or Come Shine” is also among his most bittersweet; and why “Blues in the Night” rang so true it became an American classic.

Ella Fitzgerald recorded her two-LP salute to Arlen in 1960. It came midway through a series that had turned an esteemed singers’ singer into a household word. At a time when TV was only beginning to embrace black artists, there alongside Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, and Jack Paar was Ella – a finger-snapping, motherly songbird who, back in 1938, had swung her way into the country’s heart with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Well after she reached middle age, her voice still had a bell-like purity and the insouciance of a child at play. She also had an ear that hardly any horn player could top. When bebop emerged in the mid-‘40s, Fitzgerald entered its top ranks, unleashing a fireworks display of scatted sixteenth notes and flatted fifths.

In 1956, her manager, Norman Granz, devised a way to help her go mainstream. The Song Books were a meticulously programmed, elegantly packaged set of tributes to America’s finest songwriters. These albums had the glow of high art, and gained Fitzgerald an aristocratic title: the First Lady of Song. But because they were aimed at a pop audience, the jazz content was usually low.

For the Arlen Song Book, Granz saw the need for a freer approach. He brought in Billy May, a swing arranger who had worked for Glenn Miller and, more recently, had served as maestro on Frank Sinatra’s smash album,
Come Fly with Me. Granz insisted that May leave room for Ella and some of the players to stretch out. Happily, one can hear, within the first-rate L.A. studio orchestra, the cool alto sax of Benny Carter and the piano of Lou Levy, one of Fitzgerald’s best accompanists. Years later, May admitted that, like other busy arrangers of his day, he had hired ghostwriters to do at least some of the charts. But May’s brand of mellow swing must have been easy to mimic, because every track bears his stamp.

It’s right in step with Arlen’s toe-tapping rhythm. The composer – a slim, Hebraic-looking man with glasses – used to walk around Manhattan, manuscript paper in his pocket, ready to jot down tunes. “The momentum, the rhythm of it sets up something in me, where I get ideas,” he explained.

One day in 1934, he was in his agent’s office in New York when a message came in by teletype: LET’S FALL IN LOVE MUST BE TITLE OF PICTURE NEED SONG SAME TITLE. He went into the men’s room, took out his pad, and wrote the first eight bars without hesitation. “That teletype generated something in me and made me work so fast that I had to get it down quickly,” he said. But with Ted Koehler’s lyric added, “Let’s Fall in Love” sounded like a breeze. Fitzgerald’s version teems with such sweetness and optimism that a happy ending seems assured.

Arlen wrote “Blues in the Night” for a film of the same name in 1941; the lyricist was Johnny Mercer, his collaborator, on and off, until 1959. “Blues in the Night” is
the only true twelve-bar blues Arlen ever wrote. In this epic version, Fitzgerald and the orchestra evoke a countryside whose every road holds nothing but disillusion. Some of Arlen’s darkest torch songs – notably “Stormy Weather” and “ One for My Baby” – are here too. Ballads of that type were thought to be all wrong for the sunny-voiced Ella. But she found her own way with them; as sung here, those wrist-slashers sound like youthful expressions of a first broken heart.

Ella
was never happier, of course, than when she was sailing on top of a swinging groove; in "That Old Black Magic" and "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" her joy sounds uncontainable. By comparison, “Over the Rainbow” brought out this great singer’s well-known insecurity; in her mind, she could never top Judy Garland. But even if Garland’s pathos was out of her reach, Ella’s wistfulness touches the heart.

May recalled Ella as “always very sweet and cooperative,” in the studio. Arlen had much more to say: “She stands alone while almost everyone else is derivative. Her voice, her style, are pure unadulterated American, her phrasing impeccable – she improvises playfully and with more fluidity than most instrumentalists.” Rarely would he get a lovelier salute than when the First Lady of Song smiled upon him in this album.

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2006

[James Gavin, the author of
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a biography of Lena Horne.]