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Ella Fitzgerald Takes Scatting To New Level With ‘Airmail Special’

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz inside a club.
Gottlieb, William P.
Library of Congress
Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz from Sept. 1947 in New York, N.Y.

“Just don't give up on trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong.” - Ella Fitzgerald

Yesterday I mentioned that we'd talk about Thelonious Monk today, but I realized that it's Ella Fitzgerald's birthday, so I'd be remiss if I didn't feature her.

Ella Fitzgerald was called "The First Lady Of Song" and "Queen of Jazz" — high praise, indeed, but well deserved. In the history of American music no one has been able to match the purity of her tone, the precision of her intonation or the hipness of her phrasing and ideas. She brought scat singing, which we talked about when we featured Louis Armstrong, to new heights, as you'll hear with today's featured song.

Ella had a career that spanned almost 60 years and in that time she sold 40 million records, won 13 Grammy's and was lauded by presidents, heads of state and dignitaries from around the world. She's a true American treasure and the history of jazz just wouldn't be the same without her.

Early on, it was clear that she was a remarkable singer, with perfect pitch and rhythm. But what really set her apart was that she approached singing like the horn players she admired. While most singers looked to other singers for inspiration, Ella was listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young and Ben Webster for influence. This led her to perfect her scat singing. It's ironic that most horn players spend their whole lives trying to mimic singers, and Ella turned that around!

Her catalog is so strong that you can almost close your eyes and pick any track with her name on it and you'll find a winner. I picked today's song, "Airmail Special," because it really shows her at the height of scat singing. In this song you'll hear her vocalize with no words, sound like a trumpet, throw in quotes from other songs, and all off the cuff:

Whew! How about that? Not bad to get a bonus intro by Oscar Peterson on the piano as well! I have to give another bonus track today to show that Ella was not just about the gimmick of scat singing. She could also sing in the most beautiful, heart-wrenching way, as evidenced by this version of the classic "In a Sentimental Mood":

I'm blown away by how she can be so precise and yet still have such depth and character to her voice. If you sing, you know how hard that is to achieve! OK, next up we'll return to Thelonious Monk!

Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as “the next generation of Seattle jazz.”