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Ella Fitzgerald, Come Harvest Time: Jazz United Fondly Reappraises the First Lady of Song

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Rolf Ambor
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CTSIMAGES
Ella Fitzgerald performing in Hamburg, Germany in 1961.

By the early 1960s, Ella Fitzgerald was an established international artist, beginning to reap the fruits of a 25-year career.

Onstage, her perfect combination of preparation and spontaneity yielded a nearly impossible virtuosity: the magic that shines on stellar live albums like 1960’s Mack The Knife: Ella In Berlin.

When we got word of another concert recording from Berlin — recorded two years later, and recently found unopened in the personal stash of producer/manager Norman Granz — we knew we had to talk about it. The concert represents a true time of harvest for Fitzgerald, who beat a tumultuous youth and endured the hard knocks of the music business to rise to the top of the national music scene.

Her command of the material, and of the 1962 Berlin audience, rivals her previous tour de force (which, we’re told, translates to “glanzleistung” in German). Fitzgerald and her working band —pianist Paul Smith, bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks and the new addition of drummer Stan Levey — put their signature swing on material ranging from Tiny Bradshaw’s “Jersey Bounce” to the Ray Charles hit “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” (rendered with the masculine pronoun).

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Credit Rolf Ambor / CTSIMAGES
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CTSIMAGES

But it isn’t just this discovery, The Lost Berlin Tapes, that has us talking Ella. She’s been a lifelong beacon for both of us, an untouchable singer who embodies jazz’s spirit of dauntless resilience. As Greg puts it: “To me, she means the win, the victory, the success — but with a heavy, heavy cost of sacrifice.”

We recently received new insight on that struggle in Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things, which is now playing in virtual cinemas. The documentary also provides new details about Fitzgerald’s views on social justice and racial equality, which are a bit more nuanced than her public profile might suggest.

All told, the two of us were thrilled to return from a late-summer podcast hiatus with Ella on our minds. She still has new lessons for us, and her example never ceases to inspire.

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This episode of Jazz United was produced by Carolyn Bednarski and Simon Rentner.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.