Granz who had stolen Fitzgerald away from the hacks at Decca Records in the mid-1950’s had decided that this project was a perfect vehicle for the great lady, he also understood that these songs were a profound part of America’s cultural legacy, and that they were at risk of being lost.
All these genius’ were alive when these sets were recorded and in many cases were active in the projects. Irving Berlin requested that Granz dedicate one of the sets to his songs (as if you could leave Berlin out of any examination of the great American songbook!). Ira Gershwin altered lyrics to suit Ms. Fitgerald and Granz recounted taking the acetates over to Cole Porter’s NYC apartment to play the recordings for him before they were released. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn provided the arrangements and the Ellington Orchestra to back up Ella on their Songbook.
These recordings are fascinating not only as an overview of the American canon, certainly some of the best songs ever written, but the unerring quality of the recordings themselves. The arrangements are great and Ella sings them with an almost heroic delicacy and taste, with just a touch of improvisational filigree. Many of these recordings are not “jazz” performances but share the light swinging flavor that lovers of American music & jazz can appreciate. These recordings are also enhanced by the addition of many jazz greats in the bands, so there are many wonderful solos peppered throughout these sessions.
These historic sessions have become ground zero for the American Songbook, definitive versions that established once and for all the importance and greatness of these songs and the men that wrote them. Many of these songs might have been lost to time had Granz and Fitzgerald not formally tackled this landmark series. One of the other wonderful things that Granz did was have Ella sing the song intros. The majority of these tunes came from Broadway shows and as such often had short intros that set up the song in the context of the show and story. I always loved the fact that these show intros were left in for these recordings, as well as virtually all the lyrics. Even though we don’t need these setups in the context of these records they serve to fill out the song and like a setting for a fine jewel they enhance the emotional depth of the songs and their lyrics.
These recordings also did another important thing; they established Ella Fitzgerald as America’s First Lady of Song. But more important than all this historical blather; these record are delightful, warm, intelligent, swinging, romantic, humane, funny, optimistic, sad, witty and speak very clearly of the best in America’s culture and its arts.
To quote Frank Rich from the New York Times following Ms. Fitzgerald’s death;
Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians. As Ira Gershwin said, in the line quoted in every obituary: "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them." Most of the rest of us didn't know, either. By the time she had gone through the entire canon, songs that had been pigeonholed as show tunes or jazz novelties or faded relics of Tin Pan Alley had become American classical music, the property and pride of everyone.