Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

Part of the UbuWeb Ethnopoetics collection.

Lady Be Good, 3:46

Recording: Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Be Good! 1957 (Verve / PolyGram)

The "invention" of "a new species of poetry, ‘a poetry without words’ or sound-poems (lautgedichte)," as proclaimed by Hugo Ball & others in the early twentieth century, is paralleled in the work of jazz artists from Louis Armstrong to the present. The advent of scat singing — credited to Armstrong — came in the decade after Ball and Dada, contemporaneous with the musical/verbal accomplishment of Schwitters’ equally important Ur Sonata.

As an unacknowledged form of lautgedichte, scat singing reached a height of complexity and spontaneity (the latter a defining characteristic of Dada in Tristan Tzara’s 1918 formulation) in the improvisations of Ella Fitzgerald. In a piece like this transformation of Lady Be Good, she abandons Ira Gershwin’s catchy and playfully banal lyrics to create a new and uncompromised artwork. The movement from words to wordless vocables matches Michael McClure’s account of the progressions in his Ghost Tantras: of his own particularized form of sounding: "It begins in English and turns into beast language." Of all of these manifestations of twentieth-century verbal sound art, Fitzgerald’s, here and elsewhere, is certainly the most dynamic and persistent.

N.B. There is likely no direct connection between the European and jazz experimenters, save in a lingering africanismo and the occurrence, perhaps, of "dada" in the title of a jazz standard of the 1920s, That Dada Strain. It is possible however that the "dada" of that title has some relation to the wordless songs of Armstrong and others, and it would be precisely such a sense of lautgedichte that would relate it to the spirit and practice of the other Dada.

Related Link: Brent Hayes Edwards, Louis Armstrong and the Syntax of Scat, in Critical Inquiry Volume 28, Number 3, Spring 2002

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