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’m 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 even be greater than this “greatest” one.
So today let’s celebrate Ella’s centennial by making sure Ella’s two lost performances I know about don’t become lost forever to the jazz ages. After all, most of today’s jazz stars never heard them, or even heard about them. And the first one I’ll tell you about is yet another night featuring Ella, Gonsalves and “Cotton Tail.” But it sure didn’t sound like the one I just heard on vinyl.
Ella had confessed to an interviewer she sometimes wished she’d been born a jazz tenor sax player – and I was there the night her wish came true. It happened, decades ago, at Long Island’s Westbury Music Fair, when, once again, Ellington’s band roared into “Cotton Tail.” Ella and Gonsalves were standing stage center, each with floor microphones on thin poles. Ella scatted brilliantly through the 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 the more they laughed, the angrier their always-dignified leader became. Ellington’s eyes flashed, his face purpled.
But Ella saved the day! With a giggle, 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. Then poor Gonsalves tried again, flailing but failing. No problem: Ella delivered another kickass sax solo. And the band, fully recovered, kicked their “Cotton Tail” home to a roaring finish. Ellington’s band actually beat the audience to their feet for a standing ovation tribute to Ella. The Duke kissed her cheek. And a colleague led the oblivious Mr. Gonsalves offstage.
Years later, I told that story to a friend who had long been Ella’s bass player, Keter Betts, as we stood in a now-nearly empty garage of the Kennedy Center, where he had performed. And 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 didn’t happen 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 summer heat of 1982. Fog had canceled or delayed most flights. The terminal was jammed. Tempers were frazzled.
“We were waiting for our plane when a baby – no more than six 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. 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.