Happy 60th Anniversary to Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong’s Ella and Louis, originally recorded August 16, 1956.
On the evening of August 15, 1956, the crowd of 20,000 strong assembled at the famed Hollywood Bowl amphitheater was treated to a show for the ages.
Verve Records founder Norman Granz, arguably the most accomplished entrepreneur in the history of jazz music, brought his celebrated “Jazz at the Philharmonic” troupe to the Bowl that evening, marking the first bona fide jazz concert ever to be held at the venue. The bill featured jazz luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Roy Eldridge, and Illinois Jacquet, among a handful of other top-notch musicians.
Wasting precious little time, the following day Granz traveled five minutes south via the Hollywood Freeway to nearby Capitol Studios with Armstrong, Fitzgerald, and the Oscar Peterson Quartet, comprised of Peterson on piano, Fitzgerald’s ex-husband Ray Brown on bass, Herb Ellis on guitar, and Buddy Rich on drums. Produced by Granz, with support from Verve’s in-house arranger-conductor and Head of A&R, Buddy Bregman, the collective recorded what became Ella and Louis, one of the greatest collaborations in the history of jazz music, or all of popular music for that matter. As was the typical protocol of the day for jazz studio sessions, the material ultimately culled down to create the 11-track album was recorded in one day flat. How’s that for efficiency?
Two of their generation’s most vital, most universally venerated voices and musical spirits, Armstrong and Fitzgerald had collaborated previously on various sides for the Decca label in the late 1940 and early 1950s. On paper at least, and from a vocal perspective, the pairing seemed an incompatible one. Armstrong’s gruff, wavering, guttural growl that cracks and breaks at any moment juxtaposed with Fitzgerald’s graceful, commanding, and wide-ranging style, replete with crystal-clear phrasing and improvisational versatility, was not the most congruous of couplings. However, translated to wax, the duo’s distinctive, contrasting voices complemented each other remarkably well, making for an irresistibly endearing symbiosis in song.
The orchestrated rendezvous at Capitol Studios in the summer of ’56 punctuated an already productive year for both artists. Earlier in the year, he 39 year-old Fitzgerald, arguably in the prime of her storied career at the time, had released Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, one of the best-selling jazz records of its day (at the time), and the Metronome All-Stars 1956, which featured her first collaborations with Count Basie.
Sixteen years her senior, Armstrong had been equally busy during the preceding months, delivering two live recordings (Louis Armstrong and Eddie Condon at Newport and An Evening With Louis Armstrong and His All Stars) and Satchmo the Great, the musical companion to the 1956 documentary film of the same name.
The culmination of Granz’ vision and his prized duo’s timeless talents, Ella and Louis comprises eleven standards from the American songbook that span the late ‘20s to the mid ‘40s, the majority of which were originally composed during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. And while Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s playful exchange of verses drives the whole affair, the album is bolstered by the former’s virtuosic trumpet play and Peterson’s foursome, particularly their leader’s exquisite caressing of the keys and Brown’s foundational bass.
The gentle swing of “Can’t We Be Friends?” launches the proceeding, as Armstrong and Fitzgerald trade laments for once-promising romances that went awry, with both evoking the fear of hearing those infamous last words from a disinterested partner trying to make amends.
A minimalist and elegantly executed ode to eternal optimism, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” follows, the first of two Irving Berlin penned compositions. Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” arrives later in the set, notable for the transition at its 2:25 mark, when Armstrong passes the mic to Fitzgerald and coolly says, “Take it Ella. Swing it,” as the Brown-led rhythm section instantly picks up the pace.
“Moonlight in Vermont,” the daydreamy portrait of the Green Mountain State, kicks offa handful of geographically themed songs. If you never had the itch to visit Vermont, this song will compel you to reevaluate matters and book that ticket stat.
After visiting the verdant landscape of New England, Armstrong and Fitzgerald travel down south for their rapturous version of the sleepy 1934 jazz standard “Stars Fell on Alabama.” Then it’s off to Europe for “April in Paris” and “A Foggy Day,” a sentimental recollection of a serendipitous encounter in foggy London town and the first of two Gershwin brothers compositions. The second tune indebted to George and Ira is the hopeful ode to the memory of a lost lover’s idiosyncrasies and indelible impression, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which still stands as one of the greatest love songs ever written.
Armstrong, Fitzgerald and Granz capitalized on the success of Ella and Louis by subsequently releasing the aptly titled Ella and Louis Again in 1957, followed by the duo’s excellent rendition of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess the following year. But for my money, even the most casual listen to the wondrous Ella and Louis, above and beyond the pair’s other collaborations, is guaranteed to restore your faith in romance and reinforce the enduring power of love.