Ella Fitzgerald, “Perdido” (1949): Appreciations

An embarrassment of riches originally issued on compact disc as part of Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve, this song provides an early glimpse into the simple virtuosity and thrilling nerve of Ella Fitzgerald.

“Perdido,” written by Ellington collaborator Juan Tizol, was recorded during a Sept. 18, 1949 performance of the multi-act Jazz at the Philharmonic show in New York. Featured were Parker, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, pianist Hank Jones, bassist Ray Brown (Fitzgerald’s former husband), drummer Buddy Rich and Ella, among others. Perhaps predictably, it’s Eldridge (a sideman with Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa and Earl Hines who was known, most ironically, as “Little Jazz”) who soars early, to the delight and cheers of the crowd. That’s the way it stands through Tommy Turk’s robust trombone turn.

When Ella Fitzgerald starts, the mike is not even on, and you hear her only as an echoing whisper. Not for long. Just that quickly some soundman rectifies things, then Ella – who would have been 100 years old today – is sweetly swaying, and memorably singing: “so blow, blow, fellas, blow … go, go, fellas, go …”

Go? Not so fast. Late to arrive in the spotlight, Ella isn’t walking out so quickly. In fact, she boldly skitters through the next verse, trading scat licks with all who dare challenge.

As she stretches out this amazing flight of fancy, two horn guys crash in at once, trying to overtake the shimmering Ella Fitzgerald – since they can’t outlast her. Only when Charlie Parker finally gains control of the song, which has almost swung wildly out of control, does it occur that we are bearing witness to the one and only singer who could have held her own in the company of these jazz giants. Such was Ella’s swinging style and enduring grace, even at this early date.

With “Perdido,” Fitzgerald solidified her standing as a master of the full-length scat showcases – standing front and center (a girl!) before a swinging band. Her nifty turn took nothing away from what followed back in ’49, as Bird ripped through the rest of the song with a remarkable vigor. But, clearly, she’d already changed everything.

By 1957, Ella Fitzgerald – not some horn-blowing hep cat – was the hit of the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. There, Ella’s startlingly inventive take on the Charlie Christian-Benny Goodman composition “Air Mail Special” stunned the assembled fans into gape-mouthed silence.

She changed “Perdido,” too. It had been, up until this point, a vehicle for the crowd-pleasing, stair-step soloing that defined the old JATP tour. Not anymore. Verve later officially gave this song over to its singer, using “Perdido” to open the career-defining three-disc First Lady of Song compilation, issued in the years immediately preceding Fitzgerald’s passing.

Before this, she had worked as a more conventional girl singer for some time, notably with Chick Webb. But “Perdido,” in many ways, is where the legend of Ella Fitzgerald actually began.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

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Jimmy Nelson