Please enjoy this excerpt from my recent interview with singer Jane Monheitfor the Los Angeles Review of Books.Jane's most recent album The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald is excellent, a truly adventurous program of newly arranged classics made famous by the great Ella Fitzgerald. Jane Monheit is one of the 37 musicians interviewed in my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz.
CHRIS BECKER: Ella Fitzgerald was so many things to so many people. Tell me who she was to you.
JANE MONHEIT: She was one of the true originators of the art form. She was one of the first singers to really take the influence of the instrumentalists around her and bring them into her singing. But more importantly, in addition to all of the technical things she did as a singer — the swinging, the scatting, and all of that — she sang with such great warmth. I know a lot of people who knew and worked with Ella, and they all say she was like that in person.
When were you first introduced to her music?
I was at home with my mom. My mother was a singer and because I loved to sing, she was very conscious of playing singers for me that I could learn from. Little kids tend to copy. She knew I was going to be singing along with records and wanted to make sure they were singers with good technique. I remember her putting on Ella for me, and saying to me, “Listen to this!” and me just losing my little mind over how beautiful it was.
Was it just the sound of her voice that moved you?
Yes! I remember that specifically, the sound of her voice.
You have described Ella’s songbook albums as “biblical.” Why are those particular albums so important to you?
As a child, they were what I chose to focus on. I don’t know why. The songbook albums are more of the pop music of their time. She’s not doing a ton of improvisation, so they were wonderful records to learn these songs from. But Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book, which is by far much more of a jazz record than the other ones, has always been my favorite. She’s looser on that record, and she’s singing more jazz.
In Ella’s later recordings, one hears so much joy in her singing, but there’s also wisdom, and even some sadness in the material as well. Could you connect to that?
Ella was someone who was able to sing with complete and utter sincerity, but without any histrionics. That’s a place I need to get to! [Laughs.] She was a total sage. That’s the mark of any great singer, to be able to distill life experiences into a song and help people understand other people’s experiences. Ella was brilliant at that, but she did it in such a calm, collected way. That’s something I do not know how to do. For all of her influence on me, I sing in this crazy emotional way. Ella was able to sing something so calmly, and you would believe her. I can’t do that yet.
Quincy Jones has spoken about the “open wound” that pushed Ella, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and other singers to greatness. Is that what you’re talking about as well? Having those painful experiences and then being able to speak about and share them through singing?
You want to use your experience to help provide some catharsis for others. But I think it’s the same with your joyful experiences. It doesn’t have to be just the things that hurt us. As a singer, you get used to having your heart on your sleeve. It’s about accessing all of it, and having it at the ready. I always tell my husband, if I’m being overly emotional or overly dramatic, “No, no, no. This is cool. It makes me good at my job.” [Laughs.]