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Ella at 100: Incredible music, terrible presentation


Ella Fitzgerald, Ella 100: 100 Songs for a Centennial" (Verve, four discs)

Ella Fitzgerald figures crucially in two of the greatest stories I know about the eternal mystery of fame in America. One is glorious and beautiful, the other is horrifying. Both are about the woman whose 100th birthday we celebrated on Tuesday and which will continue to be observed all year.

In the early '50s, club bookings for African-American jazz singers -- even the greatest ones -- were sparse. The Mocambo Club in Los Angeles was one room Ella very much wanted to play because of its hip and famous clientele. Its proprietor, though, didn't book black women. When Ella's fan and friend Marilyn Monroe heard about it, she told the proprietor that if he booked Ella for a week, he'd have Marilyn Monroe in his club every night sitting at a ringside table. That ought to do a thing or two for business. So he booked Ella. Monroe was indeed there ringside every night. Business was accordingly huge and worshipful. It's as beautiful a story about how to use fame as any I know.

The horror story is about an appearance by Ella during the same era in Atlantic City on a bill with Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. In the middle of her set, a deeply disturbed stranger -- whose name was coincidentally Fitzgerald -- leapt to the stage as she was singing, shouted "You've got another man" and punched Ella in the jaw. Long before the murders of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and John Lennon, that utterly incomprehensible attack on one of the most beloved entertainers America will ever have revealed the unpredictable energies loosed by renown in this country.

Ella Fitzgerald. (Globe Photos/Zuma Press/TNS)

Two opposite and extreme responses are possible to this same four-record set honoring her centennial. It should have been a monument to one of the greatest musical careers America ever had. But what you've got is both a masterpiece and a contemptible travesty. The masterpiece is because of the music within: 100 selections of representative Ella, much of it classic, including the early duets with pianist Ellis Larkins, the later music with Louis Armstrong in the greatest "Beauty and the Beast" pairing ever, the early Decca collaborations with the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan and Bing Crosby. Some of the greatest musicians in jazz are heard here -- Duke Ellington and bandmates like Ben Webster, pianists Oscar Peterson and Paul Smith. If you start asking after all the missing classics -- "Blue Skies," the duet version of Ellington's "Azure" with just guitarist Barney Kessel, "How High the Moon" -- you'll be doing it all day. It's not for nothing there's no producer credit. At the same time, no career retrospective as full as this has ever failed to always find a way to showcase the early quasi-infantile Ella some of us would like to forget forever. (If I never hear "A Tisket, A Tasket" again, it will still be too soon.) No "How High the Moon" but you'll hear "McPherson is Rehearsin' (To Swing)." This was the hardest swinging vocal virtuoso of her time and the all-time greatest scat singer. At the same time, her ballads were sublime in a way unduplicatable by anyone else. It is high time that Ella as kind of Shirley Temple update be retired forever, I say.

Where's the travesty, amid so much music that is truly great? Incredibly this is such a thrown-together product of marketing in the digital music world of 2017, that no one bothered to include any -- ANY! -- information at all about the music you hear. All you get is the title. Not the composer, or the musicians involved or the arrangers or the dates of the recordings. This is the music that Ella went a long way into turning into what we now call "The Great American Songbook" and to have it turn into music and nothing else is a disgrace. She'd have been the first to deplore it.

It's true that some younger people might be able to identify Louis Armstrong by voice (not many) but Louis Jordon? The Ink Spots? Hardly. I'm sorry, this is unconscionable. To release such high level music naked of all information is so contemptuous that it's unthinkable. However accustomed young listeners may be to listening to music in this way, it's every inch a travesty.

For the music, 4 stars (out of four). For the presentation, 1 star.

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