The turntable, which I now use only on very special occasions, is spinning a very special vinyl at 33 1/3 rpm Tuesday afternoon. It is April 25, 2017 – the 100th birthday of America’s “First Lady of Song,” the jazz legend known around the world by just her first name. She was Ella.
Ella is singing with Duke Ellington’s iconic big band in the climactic final song of a four-record album that producers unabashedly titled “The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World.” Ellington kicked off a hyper-fast version of his swinging “Cotton Tail.” It climaxes with Ella and tenor sax legend Paul Gonsalves inventing and trading blazing solos – Ella’s scatting, Gonsalves’ saxxing.
At first, I was thinking “Jazz at the Philharmonic” producer Norman Granz got that title just right back in the 1970s. But then I realized I actually know about not just one but two of Ella’s other performances that, in their own way, may have been even greater than this famous “greatest” one.
So today let’s celebrate Ella’s centennial by making sure her two lost performances I know about don’t become lost forever to the jazz ages.
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The first story came to mind as I listened to that old record Tuesday. Because it also features Ella, Ellington, Gonsalves and “Cotton Tail.” But while this performance didn’t end like the one I’d just listened to on vinyl, it was a night when one of Ella’s fondest wishes came true.
Ella had told an interviewer she sometimes wished she’d been born a jazz tenor sax player – and I was at Long Island’s Westbury Music Fair the night it happened, decades ago. When Ellington’s band began “Cotton Tail,” Ella and Gonsalves were standing stage center, each with floor microphones on thin poles. Ella scatted brilliantly through her first chorus. Then Gonsalves put his sax to his lips; his cheeks puffed, fingers flew, body swayed – but nothing came out of the business end of the sax! Not one note!
Here I must explain: Gonsalves battled narcotic addiction throughout his celebrated career; and this night, music clearly wasn’t his biggest score. Gonsalves’ bandmates convulsed in helpless hilarity – and that only made their always-dignified leader angrier. Ellington’s eyes flashed, his face purpled.
But Ella saved the day! Giggling, she grasped Gonsalves’ microphone, exaggeratedly tilted it toward her – and performed a magnificent scat-singing version of his solo, down in the low raspy timbre of a tenor sax. Next she grabbed her own mike and sang another scalding, soaring high-pitched solo. Poor Gonsalves tried again, flailing but failing. No problem: Ella sang another kickass raspy sax solo. Ellington’s band, fully recovered, kicked their “Cotton Tail” home to a roaring finish – and the band beat the audience to a standing ovation for Ella. As The Duke kissed her cheek, a colleague led the oblivious Mr. Gonsalves offstage.
Years later, I told that story to a friend, jazz great Keter Betts, who had long been Ella’s bass player. We were standing in a now-nearly empty garage beneath the Kennedy Center, where he had performed. I asked Keter: Of all Ella’s performance you witnessed, which was the most memorable?
His raconteur’s voice became a whisper; a gleam appeared in his eyes. It wasn’t in a famous jazz setting, he said, and he hadn’t even played a note while she sang. It happened in Washington’s old National Airport, in the hot summer of 1982. Fog had canceled many flights and delayed the rest. The terminal was jammed. Tempers were frazzled.
“We were waiting for our plane when a baby – no more than 6 months old – began to cry,” said Keter, a burly man whose dark black skin and silver hair made him a handsome, dignified and instantly recognizable jazz figure.
“I mean that baby screamed and screamed! And the mother was frantic because she couldn’t get the baby to stop. Ella, who was so sweet, was such a sucker for children. And so she walked over and, in the middle of a crowded airport, she began to sing a lullaby to that baby.
“Well, wouldn’t you know it, the baby hushed immediately. And all through the airport, everyone stopped what they were doing and listened to Ella’s sweet, pure, crystal-clear voice singing that lullaby.”
Ella had been gone just three years, as Keter (who’s also gone now) told me that story. “To me it was one of the most special of all of Ella’s performances I ever heard,” he whispered. Then he was silent. And the gleam in his eye began to trickle down his cheek.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.