In a moment rife with both sorrow and synchronicity, last June I was sitting down to write a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald when I heard that the 79-year-old jazz legend had passed away. Stunned at the odd coincidence, I forgot about my tribute, figuring that in the upcoming weeks plenty of Ella commemorations would crowd the airwaves and the newspaper columns.
They did, but unfortunately most of the coverage either ignored or dismissed what I consider some of Ella's finest work. Most critics emphasized her work in the 1950s, particularly the famed songbook series in which Fitzgerald interpreted the best of American pop music. Ella's early years were remembered as the time that spawned "A-Tisket A-Tasket" in 1938, the million-seller that put Ella and her band, the Chick Webb Orchestra, on the map. Most critics noted that as a result of the hit single, Ella was forced to record what The Washington Post's Richard Harrington called "pop ditties and novelty tunes," and that this didn't change until she switched labels in 1955.
This is quite true, but it ignores the fact that before "A-Tisket A-Tasket" Ella had been recording with Chick Webb for three years (Webb's band had been together for 10), and that the songs recorded during this time are some of the finest in pop. This is evidenced in the 1995 compilation Ella Fitzgerald: The Early Years. While there is indeed post-"Tisket" treacle like "Chew Chew Chew (Chew Your Bubble Gum)" on the collection, there's also "I'll Chase the Blues Away," "When I Get Low I Get High," the gorgeous "Starlit Hour," and "A Little Bit Later On," a song about revenge with enough bite to go against Green Day.
Indeed, Ella's band under drummer Chick Webb is probably the most underrated of the swing era. According to Stuart Nicholson's biography Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb "was regarded by his contemporaries as the finest drummer in jazz." His was the house band at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, and his technique, according to Nicholson, "pointed the way to modern jazz drumming and the experiments of Kenny Clarke and Max Roach."
In the postwar years, Fitzgerald grew into the major jazz figure familiar to most fans. Her work here is extraordinary to be sure, but it shouldn't elbow out Ella's work with Webb, who played his last concert on a river boat in Washington, D.C., in 1939 before dying in Baltimore. A fellow musician called Webb's funeral the biggest he had ever seen.
MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE is a free-lance writer living in Potomac, Maryland. He is a regular reviewer for Sojourners.