Tom Maxwell | Longreads | November 2016 | 7 minutes (1,807 words)
Nineteen fifty-six was a defining year for American popular music. The foundations of rock and roll were solidified when Elvis Presley, newly signed to RCA Victor, released his eponymous first album. The harder-edged rockabilly band Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio did the same. The year’s jazz releases were just as iconic: “Chet Baker Sings” helped originate a smoother West Coast sound, and The Miles Davis Quintet would ultimately find four full-length albums worth of hard bop material recorded during only two day-long sessions. There was magic coming from every corner of musical expression — Glenn Gould, Sonny Rollins, The Jazz Messengers, Fats Domino — but one album, released in October of that year, was its own quiet revolution.
The album cover is a picture of two middle-aged black people, seated on folding chairs. The woman is in her late thirties, the man in his mid-fifties. She wears a plain print housedress and a wry expression; the man’s white socks are rolled at the ankles. A trumpet is on his lap, supporting his folded arms. There is no written information on the cover other than the name of the record label: “Verve,” it says. “A Panoramic True High Fidelity Record.” On the spine is the album’s title: “Ella and Louis.”
The first of three successful collaborations between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, “Ella and Louis” is nearly perfect. It is one of those works of art — and they don’t come along often — that seems to have always existed. It features two of the greatest artists the century produced: Armstrong, the innovator and ambassador of jazz, and Fitzgerald, its most gifted singer. The album was produced by a man almost solely responsible for bringing jazz into the realm of respectability and desegregating its audience, who founded the label which released it, and assembled the all-star team of musicians who made it so marvelous. “Ella and Louis” helped rekindle interest in what would become known as The Great American Songbook. Though it is something only American culture could produce, “Ella and Louis” was also something a large part of American society worked hard to prevent.
It started with Norman Granz, producer, promoter, and, by 1955, Ella Fitzgerald’s manager. “Any book on my life,” Granz told his biographer Tad Hershorn, “would start with my basic philosophy of fighting racial prejudice. I loved jazz, and jazz was my way of doing that.” Granz leveraged Fitzgerald’s already vaunted reputation to secure more prestigious, and higher paying, gigs. Once that was accomplished, he leveraged her popularity to breakdown segregated venues: If you wanted Ella, you integrated your audience.
Granz’ philosophy was simple: he considered many jazz greats as world class artists, and believed they should be paid as such. Accordingly, in 1944, he established Jazz at the Philharmonic in Los Angeles, bringing a nightclub jam session to a concert venue. The show was a sellout, and the live recording a best-seller. Subsequent JATP tours would include the biggest names in jazz.
It was never easy. Once, at a JATP concert in Houston, Texas, Granz caught a vice squad officer who Granz assumed was planting drugs in Fitzgerald’s dressing room toilet. When confronted, the cop put his gun in Granz’ stomach, saying, “I ought to shoot you.” Granz pushed hard against the Houston police department, resulting in the case being dropped.
Concurrent with taking over as Ella Fitzgerald’s manager, Granz announced the formation of Verve Records. “I was interested in how I could enhance Ella’s position, to make her a singer with more than just a cult following amongst jazz fans,” he said. “So I proposed to Ella that the first Verve album would not be a jazz project, but rather a songbook of the works of Cole Porter. I envisaged her doing a lot of composers. The trick was to change the backing enough so that, here and there, there would be signs of jazz.”
“When I recorded Ella,” Granz remembered, “I always put her out front, not a blend. The reason was that I frankly didn’t care about what happened to the music. It was there to support her. I’ve had conductors tell me that in bar 23 the trumpet player hit a wrong note. Well, I don’t care. I wasn’t making perfect records. If they came out perfectly, fine. But I wanted to make records in which Ella sounded best.” The first Verve album, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook,” sold 100,000 copies in the first month.
On August 15, 1956, the JATP performance at the Hollywood Bowl became the best-attended event of the venue’s history even though, eleven years before, they told Granz they would never host an event with the word “jazz” in the title. The program featured Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, and Oscar Peterson — an up-and-coming pianist Granz brought to the States from his native Canada.
The next day, Fitzgerald and Armstrong met at the new Capitol Studios in Hollywood for a recording session. “My idea was to record the two of them as much as I could,” Granz said later, “because I had all kinds of ideas for utilizing Louie with Ella.” The virtuoso backing band was the Oscar Peterson Quartet, with Ray Brown on bass, Herb Ellis on guitar and Buddy Rich on drums. The product, eleven songs recorded in just one day, would become “Ella and Louis.”
Given all the musical firepower involved, it is an understated set. Most of the songs are downtempo, anchored by bassist Ray Brown’s impeccable timing and intonation. The vocals are mixed well up front, as on any pop record. Granz produced, but Armstrong was given ultimate say over songs and keys. The material is drawn mostly from show tunes and Fred Astaire musicals from the Great Depression, written by such masters as George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Hoagy Carmichael. The track list is a catalog of some of the strongest melodies ever conceived.
Fitzgerald is at the top of her form as a vocalist on “Ella and Louis.” Her diction and pitch are perfect. She is the wind under a falling autumn leaf on “Moonlight in Vermont,” despite the non-rhyming and occasionally clunky lyric (for some reason, every verse is a haiku). She makes some startling improvisational leaps — never at odds with the melody — but always lands on her feet.
Armstrong is her idiosyncratic partner. His trumpet is as declarative as ever. Though constant touring was starting to take a toll, his occasional flubbed note feels more like enthusiasm. He never forgot his mentor “Papa” Joe Oliver’s dictum: “get yourself a lead and you stick to it:” Most of Armstrong’s trumpet solos on “Ella and Louis” are a recapitulation of the song’s melody, though with the delivery of a second line brass band. His harmonies, like his scat singing around Ella’s vocals, are odd and endearing. According to Granz, Armstrong “never deferred to the material. He did what he did, and that was the thing I was trying to capture. You could hear his breathing or sighing or, instead of the word, he’d come out with a sound. But to me that’s its quality.”
Thirty years before, recording with the Hot Five in Chicago, Armstrong cut vocals by shouting into an acoustic recording horn. On “Ella and Louis,” you can hear his wide vibrato dissolve into phlegmy breath, or his tone suddenly drop down to a low baritone, as if the microphone was placed on his very heart. It is an intimacy made more precious through imperfection.
Louis Armstrong’s road to cultural acceptance was long. In 1932, the year the “Ella and Louis” song “April in Paris” was composed, Armstrong appeared in the short film “A Rhapsody in Black and Blue” dressed in a leopard skin, as court musician for a bubble-filled dreamscape called Jazzlandia. His playing is as incredible as the film’s racist conceit. “Oh, chocolate drop, that’s me,” he sings:
‘Cause my hair is curly
Just because my teeth are pearly
Just because I always wear a smile
I like to dress up in the latest style
Just because I’m glad I’m livin’
Oh, I takes troubles all with a smile
Just because my color’s shade
Makes me different maybe
That’s why they call me Shine
The year before, 1931, Memphis police arrested Armstrong for sitting next to a white woman on a bus, even though she was his manager’s wife.
In 1956, Armstrong publicly boycotted his hometown of New Orleans, when it banned integrated bands. He wouldn’t return to perform there until after the Civil Rights Act undid the law in 1964. In 1957, he and his integrated audience were the target of a bombing attempt in Knoxville, Tennessee.
By “Ella and Louis,” Armstrong was the internationally recognized and beloved ambassador of jazz, who never lost his delight in the job description. “You know, it never seemed like we were really recording, because he always so happy,” Ella said of him.
“He came in like it was nothing to it — just gonna have a ball. And I would always mess up because I [was] so fascinated watching him that sometimes I wouldn’t come in on time on my song because he would go through the whole motion — ‘Sing it, Ella!’ — and he’d be talking and cracking and making jokes while he’s talking and you don’t know whether you should sing or laugh, but that’s the kind of guy he was.”
Russ Garcia, who did the arrangements for the pairs’ third album “Porgy and Bess,” remembered things a little differently. “Louis annoyed her a little bit,” Garcia once said, laughing. “When she was singing a beautiful passage, he’d come in with his growling. She’d shoot him a sharp look and go on. It would throw her for a second. But it came off beautifully. Some people call that album ‘Whipped Cream and Sandpaper.’”
Some truly wonderful music was released in 1956. In retrospect, it’s inevitable that talented white boys like Elvis Presley or Johnny Burnette would want to explore black idioms — they could do so, after all, with some grumbling but no censure. It makes sense that jazz pioneers like Art Blakey and Miles Davis and John Coltrane would push the boundaries of the form, but Louis Armstrong had been there first. It was his trumpet playing in the 1920s with the Hot Five that fixed the idea in the public consciousness of an improvisational lead instrument in a small band setting. All the rest, although wondrous, was commentary.
It was perhaps more of a cultural leap, in the middle of that tumultuous century, that two black performers could be considered the best interpreters of white show tunes, and that the extemporaneous heart of jazz could elevate the whole to iconic status, desegregating American popular culture in just eleven songs.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.