• WBGO's Monifa Brown: "There's Something About Ella"

    April 24, 2015. Posted by Monifa Brown.

    There’s something about Ella. “I sing like I feel,” she once confessed.

    This candor and transparency are why Ella’s voice transcends age and race, and has earned followers around the world.

    Photo by WIlliam P. Gottlieb / LOC
    Photo by WIlliam P. Gottlieb / LOC

    It’s close to twenty years since Ella left the physical realm, and nearly eighty since she first wowed audiences at the Apollo Theatre’s famed ‘Amateur Hour’ as a teenager in Harlem.

    She entered the contest as a dancer - luckily for us, at the last minute, she decided to sing instead. But her irrepressible sense of swing probably came in part from the fact that she knew how to dance.

    Ella’s voice embodies girlish charm and endearing wit. Her exuberance is contagious.

    She was a tour-de-force on an up-tempo swinger, then could turn around and deliver a ballad with the same great sense of drive.

    Few, for my money, can take a lyric, whether by Berlin, Porter, Arlen, or Rodgers and Hart, and make you hear it in a new light like Ella.

    Even Ira Gershwin once declared, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”

    Photo by WIlliam P. Gottlieb / LOC
    Photo by William P. Gottlieb / LOC

    Ella had amazing chops. She could – and did - hang with the best of them: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Flip Phillips, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

    She was also prolific – she recorded over 200 albums. From her early dates with Chick Webb to Jazz At The Philharmonic and her Pablo sessions with Joe Pass, she shows her ability to evolve as an artist, the true mark of a creative genius.

    Pianist Jimmy Rowles, her accompanist and one of those who knew her best, spoke of her magical presence in this way.

    "Music comes out of her,” he said. “When she walks down the street, she leaves notes.”

    Her Grammy-winning album Mack The Knife is one of my favorites. It’s a classic example of her onstage brilliance, charisma and ingenuity.

    The album was recorded live in Berlin, with pianist Paul Smith, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks and drummer Gus Johnson.

    It showcases her technical proficiency, the agility of her instrument, and often-humorous approach to improvisations.

    Her scatting on the title track, where she forgets the lyrics and doesn’t miss a beat, are priceless.


    As a kid in the 70s, I was star-struck when I first saw Ella in a Memorex commercial.

    I used to borrow my dad’s Memorex cassettes to record my favorite songs off the radio and create my own mix tapes.

    In the commercial, Ella’s voice shatters a crystal glass. I’d never seen that before. I thought she was some sort of super hero.

    Rightfully dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella’s ability to deliver a lyric without gimmicks, and with clarity and potency, is unrivaled.

    Billy Strayhorn sums it up best. "Ella is the boss lady. That's all.”

  • WBGO in South Africa 7: Mandela's Garden

    April 3, 2015. Posted by Rhonda Hamilton.

    Cape Town, South Africa’s “Mother City,” is a photographer’s paradise.

    It’s breathtakingly beautiful – from the top of Table Mountain, you can see miles of white sandy beaches that rim the coastline, and crystal clear ocean, in every shade of blue.


    More spectacular vistas can be seen from the Upper Lighthouse at the Cape Of Good Hope.


    Looking out from Table Mountain, you see a small land mass in the ocean.

    That’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and hundreds of other political prisoners were incarcerated under Apartheid.


    I always assumed the island was named after a person, but “Robben” is the Dutch word for seal. Today, it's home to over 20 species of mammals and is a bird sanctuary with a large African penguin population.


    We were privileged to have a former inmate, Jama Mbatyoti, as one of our guides.

    He was arrested in 1976 for planning a march in his hometown of Port Elizabeth, and was confined for five years.

    Robben Island Guide600

    You could hear the pain in his words, and see it permanently etched in his face, as he spoke of the indignities he and his fellow prisoners suffered.

    s Cell600

    Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. He spent eighteen on Robben Island.

    Mandela’s cell was in section B, where the leaders of political organizations were held, in isolation from the rest of the prison community.


    Mr. Mbatyoti told us that Mandela liked to garden, and worked this small patch of land whenever he had the opportunity.

    s Garden600

  • WBGO In South Africa 6: Final Thoughts

    April 2, 2015. Posted by Rhonda Hamilton.

    Add new comment | Filed under: Jazz Alive

    When we first arrived in South Africa, everyone in our WBGO group was excited – but I don’t know if we realized that what awaited us was a profound and potentially life-changing experience.


    Our visit to the Lesedi Cultural Village was a great introduction -  a lighthearted and entertaining historical perspective on traits and traditions of the region’s tribes or ethnic groups.

    As we took in the sights, sounds and tastes of Soweto, we were able to get some sense of the challenges of everyday life in the present time.


    The Apartheid Museum took us on an emotional roller coaster - down into the depths of man’s inhumanity to man, and back up again, to see how the spirit of one man – Nelson Mandela – could illuminate that darkness, and bring people into the light of a “Rainbow Nation.”

    Mandela Mural600

    South Africa’s beautiful landscape contains vast mineral resources, which has created enormous wealth for some and unimaginable poverty and misery for others.


    On the bus ride to the Pilanesburg Game Reserve, we passed near some of the world’s largest platinum mines.

    What astounds me is that miners must travel two hours down into the mines to begin their work. After their long shift, it’s another two hours back up to the surface.

    Photo by Steve Evans
    Photo by Steve Evans

    Getting up close and personal with South Africa’s wildlife was another highlight of our trip. It’s an unforgettable thrill to see these beautiful creatures roaming free, right in front of you.

    In some cases, like this wildebeest, beautiful may not be the most appropriate word.

    Our safari guide told us the story that after God created all the animals, he had some spare parts – so he gave the wildebeest the tail of a horse, the horns of a cow and the beard of a goat!