It’s heretical, I know, but my musical sympathies have always been not with Billie Holiday but Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a matter of temperament, I’m sure. Holiday is always complaining about something, a quality often mistaken for the blues. There’s a woe-is-me tone of self-pity in her voice which I would hear without knowing anything about her unhappy life. I’m a sucker for the televised version of “Fine and Mellow,” and I’m always touched by her unspoken exchange of emotions with Lester Young. But Fitzgerald, in my book, does what an artist is supposed to do – create a beautiful object distinct from herself. I like her coolness, her refusal to milk emotion. She suggests without gushing, without melodrama.
Whitney Balliett had his reservations about Fitzgerald. In the nineteen-fifties he referred to her “clear, scrubbed voice [which] often takes on a blank perfection.” In the seventies, he wrote that “a singer’s weight is to the voice what yeast is to bread. She has slimmed down and so has her voice. It has the high, bobby-sox quality of her `Tisket-a-Tasket’ days, and it made her songs, which ranged from `Satin Doll’ to `Raindrops Keep Falling,’ sound piping.” By the nineties, Balliett distinguished Fitzgerald and Holiday by calling the former “the most celebrated of female popular singers,” and the latter “the most celebrated of female American jazz singers.” I won’t enter that dog fight. I love her song books and the album with Louis Armstrong (the latter I know almost by heart). On the Ellington record, she covers Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” a version topped for this listener only by the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane collaboration.
My brother has the good fortune to share his birthday, April 25, with Fitzgerald and with Oliver Cromwell, Walter de la Mare, Guglielmo Marconi and Earl Bostic. Happy birthday, Ken.