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Vintage Ella Fitzgerald


WHEN I was in high school, my father and I walled in a corner of our basement, wired up a dimmer and indirect lights, built in a 12-inch loudspeaker and a hi-fi system, and called it the Mood Room. My friends and I spent many an evening there, listening to the jazz classics: the Duke, the Count, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman. And, of course, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald. Even then, in the late 1950s, Ella was already a legend. Her 1939 recording of ``A-Tisket, A-Tasket'' had thrust her into public acclaim. And no wonder. Her voice could do just about anything an instrument could. Her improvisations raced around like a kid in the woods, bouncing not only along the safe and central notes of the chord but over the more dangerous paths of the ninths, augmented 11ths, and 13ths where even seasoned travelers lose their way. Yet she never forgot that she was singing words: Her diction delivered each one sharply enough to be recognized yet smoothly enough to flow into the next. And when the words got in the way, she made up her own - or, with her characteristically gentle playfulness, borrowed whole lines from other songs and bent them to fit the music at hand.

None of that had changed when she stepped before a packed and enthusiastic house the other night at the Maine Center for the Arts at the University of Maine in Orono. Accompanied by a trio - and, for some delicious moments, by the matchless Joe Pass on jazz guitar - she delivered never-better versions of such standards as ``Ain't Misbehavin' '' and ``I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good.''

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In her hands, the solid swing of ``Take the `A' Train'' became a waltz. When Joe Pass joined her on the ``One-Note Samba,'' she filled it with musical quotations ranging all the way from Ferde Grof'e's ``Grand Canyon Suite'' to a 1950s cigarette ad.

As entertainment, it was vintage Ella. But it was more. ``That woman is all spirit!'' someone burst out during the intermission. ``The only thing old about her is her body.'' What has lasted, and become clearer with time, is that sense of spirit.

It's not simply that she's every inch a lady, in mannerisms and appearance and in her graceful relations with the musicians and the audience. It is almost as though she had long ago pulled a plug somewhere and drained away every vestige of ego. She wasn't striving to become anything - not even to be Ella. She was simply being music. Her goal was not to dazzle but to delight. It was not to say, ``Look at me sing!'' It was to say, ``Look at what jazz can do to these great songs.'' It was to focus thought not on appearance but on life.

And such a life, rich with spontaneity and yet fully obedient to the underlying chords and rhythms. Lives like that have incomparable impact on the rest of us. They stretch our view of human accomplishment. They prove that grace triumphs. They make us feel good about ourselves, about one another, and about the generations to come.

Riding down the elevator with her after a post-concert reception, I asked what she would like to say to the next generation. Her response was immediate, simple, and motherly. ``I would tell them to go to school, stay in school, and remember that nowadays you have to know something to get anywhere.''

It was said almost with a tinge of longing - as though, so many decades after leaving school at age 14 to begin her career, she felt the loss of something indefinably valuable. Why shouldn't today's students do what she did? Her answer seemed vintage Ella - turning the attention away from herself to someone else. ``I was very fortunate,'' she said with a smile, ``that someone discovered me.'' I couldn't help remarking, as the elevator door opened, that so are we.

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