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Ella Fitzgerald: Gentle Awe

I was planning to write about Ella Fitzgerald yesterday, in honor of her centennial, but really: what’s left to say? I consider her if not the greatest female singer of all time, way way way up there. So does everybody else. Not just the pitch perfect, the incredible elocution, the skillful, supple womanliness. More (and this is why I decided to write a little about the woman) she had an innate dignity, a sort of pride in how she was perceived, which didn’t transcend race, it exemplified race.

Ella’s personal life was as messy as anyone’s, her brutal step father, her singing on the streets of harlem, her messy marriages, the usual baggage of a life well lived, but in her public persona, in the way in which we see her, we see something else.

Among my friends of color, I have become close to some who are the greatest ladies and gentlemen I’ve ever come in contact with. It is like there is a DNA stretch where the world becomes Sidney Poitier: perfect diction, perfect manners, a level of grace and compartment which makes the face of racism in pursuit of these people seem like a form of insanity. One of my closest friends, Robert Nevin, had it.: when people dealt with him, they treated him with respect because he also treated the people around him so respectfully without ever being less than an equal part of the world about him. Some actors may have it, civic leaders sometimes have it, and Louis Armstrong, Ella’s greatest foil, didn’t have it: he was a giddy mischief maker.

Ella had it.

When she poured out her heart, whether nursery rhymes, or Gershwin tunes, the Queen of jazz resolved from sass to a glowing respect for herself and for everyone around her. When you listen to Ella, you feel as though there is a mutual respect between her and us, a handling us with the greatest of regard and performing with the greatest of will not to be pulled under by the ugliness of Jim Crow, in the 30s, 40s, 50s. The disregard for black women’s achievements (have you seen “Hidden Figures”) can only be ignored so far when it came to Ella. My friend Mike Holcomb noted this quote: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” – Ira Gershwin. There is simply no way to see this exemplary figure in black history as anything less than a complete meeting of woman and art form.

This all sounds very positive, but is it really? Essentially, people were being forced to show superhuman perseverance so as to be accepted as normal and that is, in fact, horrible. To discount how racism affected musicians from that (and, indeed, from this) era, is to misunderstood their genius. Ella’s genius was in a persona that dug deep into the roots of black music, both jazz and the blues, and maintain both what it is and what it needs to be to a mainstream white audience. If she isn’t a whore, a junkie, an illiterate, then what was she?

Ella wasn’t Aretha, she wasn’t singing “RESPECT,’ she was embodying a public life where treating Ella with disrespect would be obscene. Aretha pulled up her brothers and sisters not by example, but by righteous anger, and Ella was simply a goal to attempt to be reached. Even today, Aretha’s dustup with Dionne, was not something that would not make the slightest sense from Ella. Ella tackled the Great American Songbook and forced it to be perfect, the song needed to be sublime encapsulations for Ella and when they were, she made them substantially better by treating them with gentle awe. Much the way we feel about her today: gentle awe.



  1. Robert Nevin on April 27, 2017 at 10:22 am

    Your extremely kind words about me aside, Iman, your insights in to the life and times of Ella (and other black performers of the early-mid 20th century) are spot on. I came to an appreciation of Ella Fitzgerald due, in no small measure, to your writings about her. Excellent post! Gentle awe, indeed.

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