Diaa Bekheet | Washington, DC – Any time I take a trip to New York, I remember the great American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who died 10 years ago. Ella, with her amazing, haunting, crisp voice, is always my tour guide in the Big Apple. Just listen to her hit “Manhattan” and she will tell you where to go for a fun time in New York. The song still gives me fever 22 years after I first heard it, when Ella says “The great big city’s a wonderous toy just made for a girl and boy. We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy!”
“Manhattan” is part of the Great American Songbook which is probably one of the finest-ever recorded versions of classic American songs by music icons like George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington and others.
In my music show, I profiled phenomenal Ella Fitzgerald three times between 1992 and 1996 – the year she died. I used her songs so many times in the nostalgic “Down Memory Lane” segment of my Jazz Club USA show, to explain to our international audience how America’s first lady of songs used her voice like a musical instrument and manipulated the melody in many ways with her unerring pitch. Here’s a combined sample: the songs follow Arabic narration.
Ella’s sweet, powerful three-octave voice and perfect diction made her the best candidate to record a splendid series of Songbook albums for Norman Granz, who directed the Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP) concerts. Those concerts featured the era’s preeminent musicians, including: Louie Bellson, Ray Brown, Benny Carter, Nat “King” Cole, Sonny Criss, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Bill Harris, Coleman Hawkins, J.C. Heard, Billie Holiday, Gene Krupa, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Ben Webster, Lester Young and many more.
Lady Ella, used to say “I sing like I feel”. At Yonkers Metro station, you will see the first-ever life-size bronze statue of her . Ella’s story is a classic rags to riches tale. She was born in Yonkers in 1917 and grew up in near School Street and Park Hill Avenue. She also attended Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. Ella eventually became the most popular female jazz singer in the United States – a title she held for more than 50 years. She had to quit her musical career because of vision problems and physical frailties. The statue (not the only one in America) was created by Yonkers sculptor Vinnie Bagwell as a tribute to the most celebrated jazz singer of her generation. Ella died on June 15, 1996 at the age of 79.
“Manhattan” is a very popular song. I’m sure after you listen to it, you will remember New York. The music was written by Richard Rodgers and the words by Lorenz Hart for the 1925 revue “Garrick Gaieties” that debuted in 1925 on Broadway. It was the first of three Garrick Gaiety revues. The song was considered to be the simplest and shortest tourist guide for the city’s visitors.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in 2007 as a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. She is also honored in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, which was established in 1969 in Seneca Falls, New York. Many of the All-Star albums pay tribute to this iconic singer, whose light, distinctive and extraordinary voice always left me longing for more, especially when she improvised and scat sung with great freedom, making you feel that her voice is a musical instrument itself. Here’s her 1938 major hit A-Tisket, A-Tasket:
Ella Fitzgerald also had a great sense of humor. She once commented on being a jazz icon saying, “Some kids in Italy call me ‘Mama Jazz; I thought that was so cute. As long as they don’t call me ‘Grandma Jazz’.”
For more on jazz music, listen to VOA’s Jazz America