Monday, September 29, 2008

Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa

I have been trying to develop a diverse library of children's books. One of the areas that is still pretty thin is music. When I saw Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney, I picked it up and flipped through it. I think it is a very fun book with a clever "format"...

Although it is a picture book (recommended for children 5-9 years of age), it is sectioned into "tracks": Hoofin' in Harlem, Jammin' at Yale, Stompin' at the Savoy and Carnegie Hall Scat. Ella's story is told by "Scat Cat Monroe", a zoot-suited feline.

Track 1

Ella hoped to make it big as a dancer. She taught herself to tap. She and her friends would perform on the street corners in Yonkers, New York. Neighbors told her to go to Harlem, in New York City, "where dreams really do come true." At seventeen, at the Apollo Theatre, she entered a talent contest. When the got on stage, "her feet failed her", but she wouldn't be booed off the stage, so she started to sing. "She won the contest straight up, kicked her dance dreams to the curb, and pinned all her hopes on being a singer."

Track 2

The following year, as a "featured singer" at the Harlem Opera House, "Bardou ALi, the master of ceremonies for the Chick Webb Orchestra, saw Ella perform." He knew she had to sing with Chick, but Chick didn't think people came to listen to a singer, but to hear the instruments. "What Chick didn't know was that Ella's voice was its own instrument." Chick gave her a chance:

He told her she could sing with his orchestra at a college dance the next night. At Yale University - the Ivy League, where gettin' loose don't always come easy. Chick told Ella that if she could work that college crowd, she could join his band.

So Ella went to Yale with a purpose. And, man, once Ella started to sing, she had them Yalies

Track 3

The Chick Webb Orchestra regularly played the Savoy in Harlem "to a house packed tighter than the A train". The band played, Ella sang, and she joined the audience on the dance floor when she was done.

"When the sun set on Harlem, and the cats and kitties came out to play, it was Ella and Chick they were coming to see."

The Savoy also had a battle of the bands. One contest was between Chick Webb's orchestra and the Benny Goodman Orchestra. The applause from the audience would determine the winner.

Benny set the contest in motion. His band started with a song called "Peckin'." They made the place swing, no doubt.

Then Chick's band took their turn. Chick's drum solos were slammin'. They backed up Ella's vocals, which gave new meaning to the word divine.

The contest was close from the get-go. Those musicians put a fever to the room. They had me sweatin' the sheen off my fur, and scuffin' my wing-tip shoes. When Chick's band played "Harlem Congo," the crowd got hotter than bootleg Tabasco. That's 'cause Ella set "Harlem Congo" on fire. Her voice was quick-fried rhythm, with a brassy satin twist.

She sizzled with Chick's cymbals.

Busted loose with his bongos.

She tamed the crowd while Chick played his timpani.

And, man, that ain't all!

Ella worked the downbeat. She milked the backbeat.

She sang like tomorrow wasn't ever gonna come.

Four thousand people filled the Savoy Ballroom that night. The contest lasted five hours. When it was done, everybody knew who was boss.

Track 4

Chick had to put nightclubs on a waiting list for his orchestra. "Ella's popularity showed them that a true star has no color - it just shines."

Ella wasn't afraid to try new things in music. She tried bebop, which is "jazz on the wild side."

Fast-smack sound - done low down.
It was slam-bamming on the flitter-tip.
It was ham-hock-jabber.
FEVER. Pitch.

Dizzy Gillespie was a bebop star. "With his trumpet, he could blow notes into back flips." Ella joined his band. She "used her voice in the same way Dizzy used the notes he made with his horn - like a runaway leaf flying high on a breeze."

Dizzy & Ella performed before a sell-out crowd at Carnegie Hall on September 29, 1947.

Dizzy's trumpet chirped. It zipped. It sputtered in double-time tempo.
Ella's singing hung fast to Dizzy's rhythm.
Dizzy bounced his bebop to Ella.
Ella shot him back her scat.
Man, those two were making up music in the moment.
It was invention.
It was frolic.
It was cooler than cool.
Ella put scat on the map. When she and Dizzy threw down their skippity-hop-doo-dee-bop, every soul in the place slipped into the jam.

Ella Fitzgerald became The Queen of Scat, The First Lady of Song; she was a Vocal Virtuosa...

At the back of the book, there is a Note from the Author and a Note from the Illustrator. The author's note include specific biographical information about Ella Fitzgerald and lists many of the honors she received. The illustrator's note discusses his inspirations for his paintings for this book. Also included at the back are a bibliography, videography and "selected" discography.

Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa has fun with words. It's not "perfect" English, but I think it perfectly illustrates the musical culture Ella Fitzgerald represents. Even though this is "just a book", the words seem to make the music come alive from the printed page.

This book would be good to share with any child, but I think it could be a great tool to introduce music lessons about Ella, the Big Band era, and jazz.

1 comment:

Johnny Smoke said...

This is an awesome book at least at three levels.

Level 1 is the fact it's a kid's book about jazz music and Ella Fitzgerald no less. Level 2 is that it's well written with a jazz cadence and rhythm. Level 3 is the artwork which is done in a Resist Illumination style with an Art Deco theme. The illustrator perfectly syncs with the author's intent.

Anyone who loves jazz and wants to introduce this music style to their kids... that is to the form and one of it's great... this book is perfect for the under 5 crowd.