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Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things

Ian Patterson By

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Just One Of Those Things
Ella Fitzgerald
Eagle Rock
90 minutes
2019

In the public mind, Ella Fitzgerald was unarguably one of the great jazz figures of the twentieth century. She mightn't be fetishized the way Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Chet Baker have been—there wasn't quite enough tragedy in the singer's life for that kind of attention—yet perhaps more than any other jazz musician, Fitzgerald is globally synonymous with The Great American Song Book.

The ninety-minute film-documentary Just One Of Those Things (Eagle Rock, 2019) charts Fitzgerald's life in fairly linear fashion, from her birth in 1917 to her death in 1996, duly marking the major steps in Fitzgerald's rise from obscurity to world-wide fame. It's an extraordinary tale, simply though elegantly steered by director Leslie Woodhead, the veteran British documentary maker.

A life-long jazz fan, Woodhead previously turned his lens on jazz photographer Herman Leonard, in the post-Katrina documentary Saving Jazz (BBC, 2011). He also collaborated with Leonard on his final book of pictures, Jazz (Atlantic Books, 2010) and made a film on Tony Bennett. Leonard's iconic photos of Fitzgerald grace Woodhead's film, while Bennett is one of a cast of luminaries who share their appreciation of Fitzgerald.

Biographer Judith Tick, author Margo Jefferson, singers Laura Maluva, Jamie Cullum, Patti Austin and Smokey Robinson, Fitzgerald's drummer Gregg Field, and her adopted son Ray Brown Jnr, are among those who, to varying degrees, shed light on Fitzgerald's life, times and art.

By far the best of these cameos is by former dancer Norma Miller—ninety-eight at time of filming—who reminisces about Fitzgerald's debut live performance, in Harlem in 1934, as a sixteen-year-old hopeful on the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night. Fitzgerald's shabby dress and shyness provoked laughter but that initial disdain disappeared when Fitzgerald began to sing. "She shut us up so quick you could hear a rat piss on cotton," the effervescent Miller recalls.

That Fitzgerald lost her mother at age thirteen, was sent to a dehumanizing reform school—from which she ran away—and spent time homeless on New York's streets, puts into perspective just how life-changing her success at the Apollo Theater's Amateur Night would prove. The adversity that Fitzgerald repeatedly overcame runs through Woodard's film like a leitmotif, as does the impression that Fitzgerald, for all the love showered on her by her audiences, was essentially a lonely individual.

Anyone seeking revelations or salacious detail from this film may be disappointed, for unlike some other jazz legends, Fitzgerald never succumbed to drink or drugs, led a seemingly solitary life following her divorce from Ray Brown in 1953, and was neither outspoken nor militant during the civil rights movement.

Perhaps the only record of Fitzgerald condemning the USA's endemic racism came during a 1963 radio interview with Fred Robins, when she spoke of her "embarrassment" when faced with questions from journalists abroad about the racial apartheid in her country. She describes the prejudice as "pitiful," but the programme, we learn, was never broadcast.

Race, inevitably, is another of the film's chief protagonists, and was an ever-present issue in Fitzgerald's lifetime. From her family's move from Virginia to New York in 1919 ---part of the decades-long Great Migration, when millions of Afro-Americans left the rural South for the cities of the Northeast and Midwest—to the refusal of numerous club owners/promoters to engage black artists, the measure of Fitzgerald's success can be seen against this racial climate. "Everything was race, " recalls dancer Norma Miller. "You couldn't go to Woolworth across the street."

Even at the height of her success, with record-sales in the millions, and playing to adoring audiences around the world, Fitzgerald's house in Beverly Hills had to bought in jazz impresario Norman Granz' name. A central figure in Fitzgerald's life, Granz is rightly accorded significant space in Woodhead's film. If it was Fitzgerald's own courage and self-belief that launched her career at the Apollo Theater as a teenager, that catapulted her to national renown in Chick Webb's Orchestra, and that established her as a scat improviser on a par with the great bebop instrumentalists Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, then it was Granz' vision and astute management that guided Fitzgerald to her greatest commercial success.

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