The songs in the Great American Standards songbook all have lives of their own by now – and why not, most of them are older than your grandmother. Even fairly obscure songs that your grandmother probably doesn’t remember listening to as a child have entire biographies. Grandma may not remember the 1937 Fred Astaire film Shall We Dance, or the sequence therein where Fred cuts a rug in a gleaming futuristic ‘factory’ with a bunch of black factory workers. But the song has gone on, in the hands of Ella Fitzgerald 20-some years later, and then in the next millennium as a remix.
When it comes to the standards, it’s hard to know where to start. A standard, by definition, cannot belong to any one singer. If there’s no definitive version of a song that’s been sung by hundreds, how do you even narrow down the field? I find that in these cases, Ella Fitzgerald is the best place to start. Not least because she made a point of recording all the major songs from all the major composers. She sang ALL THE SONGS. Maybe not literally, but not for lack of trying; her ambitious Songbooks project did a pretty thorough job covering most of the popular music of her time. She didn’t just sing them either – she sang them as well as anyone’s ever sung them. From Ella you can go on and find whatever version suits you, in whatever style you prefer, from performers ranging in stature from Holiday and Sinatra to Toni Tennille. But yeah, good rule of thumb, always start with Ella.
Here is a rare video of Ella Fitzgerald performing live, in what appears to be a rather large venue full of white people. The sound quality could be better, but overall it’s a very good glimpse of the star. Unfortunately, any such clip is a rarity, concerts not being frequently documented in those days. The shortage of video footage of greats like Ella is painful, especially for young fans raised in the age of minute-by-minute updates, but it does make you appreciate what we do have. I’m sure that seeing Ella Fitzgerald in her nightclub days was something else, but those are moments remembered only by eyewitnesses, and glimpsed only in still photos today.
I think this Cole Porter song has been sung by literally every single jazz singer who ever lived. That may be hyperbole, but it feels right. The list goes on and on, and with so many to choose from, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Picking between Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Shirley Bassey, Maurice Chevalier, Kirsty MacColl, Nellie McKay, Ella Fitzgerald, Bryan Ferry, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland, Diana Krall, and too many other to mention is a tough task. If you’re a jazzbo, you know that each and every one of those people bring their own touch to it. For the uninitiated, it may all sound like much the same thing endlessly repeated. I’m not a true fanatic, but I can distinguish the styles of my favorite artists. Nonetheless, I wasn’t able to listen to every version of this song – I got bored after two or three. In this case, I prefer the more upbeat renditions. It’s an interesting song lyrically, in that it’s a breakup song with a positive message. It’s a song for shrugging off your heartache and moving on, and it begs for a little swing. For that I like the sassiness of Peggy Lee, who always had a bit of a winky bad girl vibe. And of course, I always gravitate towards Ella Fitzgerald. Ella’s vocal prowess can’t be beat, and she always sounded as if she was enjoying herself, even when she sang very sad songs. Those are just two great perfromances, and there are dozens of others that are equally good, if you want to spend an afternoon listening to the same song over and over.
Don’t make the assumption that all jazz is sad. Just because I’ve been inundating you with depressing Billie Holiday weepers doesn’t mean that’s all jazz is, or that’s all the jazz I like or know about. Not every jazz singer is as much of a downer as Billie was. Not all of them had as shitty a life as she, or did as much heroin. Ella Fitzgerald was a cheerier sort, for one. She sang plenty of torch songs, for sure, and of courses had her own troubles in life. But she projected an upbeat image throughout her career. She wasn’t exactly a glamorous figure; all of her glamour was in her music. I see her as a great example of a strong, dignified woman who lived by her talent. Her work isn’t haunted by personal drama or overshadowed by glitzy image. I don’t know enough about her life to judge her personality or who she was, but I do get the impression that she was a positive person. This is certainly a positive song.
The thing about the great American standards is, they’ve been incarnated by so many singers in so many different styles that there’s bound to be at least one version that’s up your street. It’s also a bit confusing, not knowing who to attribute a song to. We’ve become used to, in our age of the singer/songwriter, to associate a song with one artist. It’s shocking enough if a cover version outshines the original. A song with no established original and no particular defining moment is hard wrap our heads around. On the other hand, it’s fun to stumble upon different iterations of the same song, each one its own statement, independent of others, and often with different lyrics. How Long Has This Been Going On? was written by George & Ira Gershwin in 1927 for the musical Funny Face. Probably the most familiar version is Audrey Hepburn singing it in the 1957 film. Unfortunately, Hepburn wasn’t much of a singer, so film fans aren’t getting a very good introduction to the song itself. There are plenty of versions to choose from including Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles and Rufus Wainwright. I have a soft spot for Ella Fitzgerald and her low-key rendition. Fitzgerald’s singing had an emotional authority that many singers with prettier voices just lacked. She makes it into a very sad song, whilst it was rather a happy one in the musical. While I also like what Vaughan and Garland did with it, my favorite has to be Carmen McRae’s playful take. She makes it sassy and brassy, and to modern ears, I recommend MJ Cole’s remix.
Here’s some Ella Fitzgerald in action, from the movie Pete Kelly’s Blues, 1955. Yeah, it’s pretty evidently a lip sync job, but take what you can get. It’s a tragedy that none of the jazz greats left much of a visual trace of themselves, besides photos. But live performances just weren’t filmed in those days. Filming concerts didn’t become a big thing until the 1970’s. That’s largely due to technological limitations. In the 40’s they just didn’t have small lightweight cameras that could shoot high quality in a smoky dark club, or outdoors. Also, it probably didn’t occur to anyone that an Ella Fitzgerald performance would be a historical artifact that fans in another century would long to see, or even that Ella would still have fans in another century. Of course today it’s the opposite – everybody’s every sneeze is newsworthy nowadays. Does it cheapen an experience when everybody is filming everything? When I go to a concert and take photos, those photos have no historical worth, just because 50 other people have taken identical ones. Someone who saw Ella Fitzgerald sing at a concert where not a single picture was taken will take that experience to the grave. Does that make it more or less a valuable experience for not being documented? How do we know it even happened? How do I know if something happened in my life if I don’t document it? And is a video a better document than a still picture, or a recording?