Sunday, January 22, 2017

A defining importance: Ella Fitzgerald centenary is celebrated with the opening of a new exhibit at the Palladium

She's the top, she's Mahatma Gandhi; she's the top, she's Napoleon Brandy.
A partial view of the exhibit,  on view through October in the Palladium's gallery,

And so on, to paraphrase Cole Porter, the pre-eminent Indiana-born contributor to the Great American Songbook, from his song "You're the Top."

Ella Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago, and to give her the proper centennial salute seems a natural honor for the Great American Songbook Foundation, which is based at the Center for the Performing Arts, to undertake.

On Thursday and Friday of last week, the Carmel-based foundation opened an exhibition in the Songbook Exhibit Gallery. It's devoted to the singer, with special focus on the "Songbook" series of LPs that helped to establish the songs worth considering classics by the greatest American songwriters. As Will Friedwald, who literally wrote the book on jazz singing, remarked on both days of the celebration: "If Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald didn't do a song, then it's not a standard." There are other good American popular songs, but without Sinatra or Fitzgerald interpretations of them, they tend to be obscure.

Friedwald, introduced by Foundation vice president Chris Lewis, went on to say that Fitzgerald was the only one of the top American popular singers who "could do everything: Her gospel and country-and-western albums are masterpieces."

On Friday afternoon in an illustrated lecture, Friedwald addressed the singer's interpretations of Cole Porter songs. "The Cole Porter Songbook" was the first (1956) and remains the most famous of the eight collections on Verve Records carrying the "Songbook" designation.

Cover of the original Verve release.
Cole Porter songs, Friedwald continued, have a unique depth that made them suitable to a singer of Fitzgerald's technique and expressive breadth. He referenced an interview he did with Cecile McLorin-Salvant when the much-admired young singer
was just 22. He admits it was a dumb, paired question, the sort that editors often like interviewers to include: Why sing old songs? Why not sing Justin Bieber?

McLorin-Salvant replied: "If Justin Bieber can come up with a song that will make me laugh and cry at the same time, I'll sing it."

Friedwald's footnote: "That quality is more true of Cole Porter than any other songwriter."  The music critic added that Porter also had a sure way of blending old-fashioned, even literary, language with casual slang of the era. He cited a couple of phrases from "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" — "Why the gods above me, Who must be in the know" — as an example, the first suggesting a solemn oath, the second close to what the poet Walt Whitman called "the blab of the pave."

Friedwald's lecture included video clips of Fitzgerald and one other singer he admires who did Porter superbly, Nat "King" Cole. (Together, they make up the cover art of Friedwald's "Jazz Singers.") The visual/auditory climax of this pairing was a couple of Fitzgerald-Cole duets: "It's All Right With Me" and "You're the Top." And a fascinating example of TV censorship in the 1950s   — offering an incidental insight into cultural change since Fitzgerald's heyday — was Cole's substitution of "three-letter words" for "four-letter words" in these lines from "Anything Goes":

Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays in the Palladium, the gallery is admission-free. 
The foundation also has assembled a traveling display with educational materials, which will be on loan to local schools and community groups. For more information, contact the foundation at (317) 844-2251 or

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