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Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Porgy & Bess

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 18, 2016
Category: Jazz

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When your charter says “no politics,” how do you program a site like this during the week of the Republican convention? I thought of a line from a friend’s poem: “How bright a light there must be to cast so dark a shadow.” And that gave me the answer: Go to the light. Not the Hallmark greeting card light, which is about pastel bromides, but the other kinds: hard-earned light, light you get by grace, light you don’t deserve but comes your way anyway. Go to beauty, which is, as I understand it, art, great books and music, love. So that’s the week…First Seamus Heaney, now this…

Two thousand five hundred musicians have recorded “Summertime” — it’s a classic. (I bet most Americans can name Janis Joplin and no other singer.)  As for “Porgy and Bess,” the folk opera from which “Summertime” springs, it’s such a classic that it’s hard to believe anyone ever had a harsh word to say about it.

But after its premiere in 1935, no less than Duke Ellington said, “It has grand music and a swell play, but the two didn’t go together. It does not use the Negro musical idiom — the times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms."

A quarter of a century later, the producers of the film version had trouble assembling a cast. Harry Belafonte rejected their offer to play Porgy. Sidney Poitier took the part — and wished he hadn’t. Poitier later wrote that the movie insulted black people; when he chose clips of his best performances for his tribute at the American Film Institute, he picked nothing from “Porgy and Bess.”

And in 1985, when Grace Bumbry was a sensation as Bess in a Metropolitan Opera production, she slammed the opera: "I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935.”

All that may be. All I know is that I have, in a long life, rarely been confronted with more genius than in the Fitzgerald/Armstrong recording of “Porgy & Bess.” [To order from Amazon, click here. To download from Amazon, click here.]

Set aside the achievement of George and Ira Gershwin in transforming DuBose Heyward’s novel into a folk opera. Let’s just focus on Armstrong and Fitzgerald, who were at the peak of their popularity when this record was made in 1957.

“Summertime” — the first song — sets the tone. A baleful horn figure, then violins. And then Armstrong’s trumpet: slow, steady, dignified. But wait — here comes a slurred note. And a cool little improvisation. Just enough of each. Very tasty.
Fitzgerald sings a verse. She is cool and formal. A lady. Not to be taken lightly. Now it’s Armstrong’s turn. Tender, but let’s not kid ourselves — this is not singing as others define it. This is melodic speech: rough, gutteral. And thus he is ideally cast: His Porgy may have his charms, but he’ll have to stretch to keep Bess.

And so it goes throughout the CD. Trumpet mastery — Armstrong has dazzling control. His tone is bright, but never shrill; there’s a warmth in his playing no one else could produce. And Fitzgerald is just a study in inevitability; to hear her is to wonder how anyone could sing these songs any other way.

And more: “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way.”

All brilliantly conceived, orchestrated and recorded.

The greatest trumpet player in this history of jazz.

The father of scat singing.

The queen of the jazz vocal.

There are no-brainers, and then there is this Ella Fitzgerald-Louis Armstrong collaboration — music that imprints on your soul.