Ella Fitzgerald first appeared in Scotland with pianist Oscar Peterson in 1964, but for jazz performer Tina May, the year she first heard Scottish jazz pianist Brian Kellock is vaguer.
The two are celebrating the centenary of Ella’s birth, along with the music of Oscar and Ella in a short tour that comes to Eden Court on Sunday, May 14.
Tina said: “I knew what Brian sounded like before I met him – he did a whole load of lovely Fred Astaire recordings and he is a real tunesmith.
“We have worked together at a couple of festivals, Edinburgh Jazz Festival and I believe in Glasgow, but it all blurs a bit because there might have been a couple of cocktails involved,” she laughed.
“But I haven’t worked with Brian for about five years, so it should be a happy reunion.”
By the time Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar played Glasgow in 1964, Ella was already being called “the queen of jazz” and “The First Lady Of Song”.
And of the 200-odd albums she would produce before dying at 79, it was The Great American Songbook albums that had just made the most impact.
For Tina, a first hearing of Ella had made a huge impact when she was still a little girl.
“I absolutely treasure the Ella records my mum and dad had when I was a kid.
“But I can remember feeling I was going to explode when I heard Ella singing Take The A Train, hearing all those train noises.
“I was about eight and I can actually remember, I think I broke the sofa, jumping up and down – it was just so exciting.
“I had never heard anything like it. It doesn’t sound like anything else, she is doing all these “waaaaaa” sounds and the Ellington band is going “wegh-wegh-wegh” and I just thought that was so fantastic.
“My life changed, like a lot of people. It was a lightbulb moment for me –‘Woah! I loooove this!’.”
Ella’s singing career started when she won a talent competition at the Apollo and started singing for Chick Webb.
Tina’s jazz career really started when her degree in French took her for a year to Paris to learn the language and she hooked up with some famous jazz musicians over there.
Twenty years later Tina recorded an album Live In Paris remembering those times and jamming with musicians like drummer Kenny Clarke.
“At home we’d have singsongs. I used to do lots of Fats Waller songs and Cole Porter and Gershwin, they were just part of the house.
“But I think my dad was really surprised that I just wanted to go for it. I just found it irresistible, my degree was a French degree so I did an academic degree but I found myself gravitating towards jazz clubs and the musicians in Paris.”
For Ella, having Norman Granz as her agent gave her career a big push.
Tina said: “He was just an incredibly ahead-of-the-game person. It’s courtesy of him that we saw Ella and that she did her songbooks.
“He brought all those wonderful musicians over to Europe. … the Jazz at the Philharmonics series of live concerts from 1944 to 1983 and in Nice and a lot of those places you could see Ella.
“Norman really opened the door to a lot of black artists.
“But there are some lovely stories about her career, such as how Marilyn Monroe got Ella her first proper gig in LA.
“At that time they still weren’t booking black artists.
“But Marilyn was an Ella fan and she rang up the club owner and said ‘You book Ella and I’ll be there with my entourage’ and it brought the press and everything.
“And after that week, Ella never had a problem getting a gig in LA again.”
Tina confirms the stories of Ella’s shyness offstage.
“But up onstage she shuts her eyes and goes into her other little world.
“She really lived when she sang. I think it was her solace really,” Tina said.
“I think a lot of artists do that to cope with the pain, when I did my Piaf show – where I talk about the songs and how that came about – I thought with people like Ella and Piaf, there were such rags to riches, and I mean rags.
“But now I’m not sure if you are underprivileged now how easy it is to get through.
“Even with something like Britain’s Got Talent, you’ve got to be somewhere already, you’ve got to have people believing in you.
“Ella didn’t and certainly Piaf didn’t. They were lone wolves really trying to get somewhere.”
But Europe after the war loved the chance to discover black jazz artists.
Tina said: “I think when Ella does that How High The Moon solo for about 11 minutes, you can hear, it’s a live recording and they are going bonkers. They hadn’t had a black artist of that stature in Berlin since, well, whenever.
“From before the war they were loving jazz and then Hitler outlawed jazz. They all outlaw jazz, they can’t control it!” Tina laughed.
Tina is looking forward to bringing ‘scat’ into the songs – it was one of Ella’s signature sounds.
“I find it completely irresistible it’s where the voice departs from the tune and makes its own melody,” Tina said.
“And Ella was just unbelievably gifted and so groovy, so yeah, I fell in love with that when I was about eight or something
“I just started singing along because it’s so beautiful.
“I love it that people say the first scat was Louis Armstrong who when the singer didn’t turn up, he was reading the words and the sheets all fell on the floor and so he had to do “Yavva doodau …” Tina becomes Louis Armstrong scatting for a minute.”
For the Ella and Oscar show, Tina says she and Brian will be playing “all Ella’s hits”.
“We have to do things like How High The Moon and Mac The Knife, various things from the Cole Porter songbook – and Gershwin. How could you not, things like Lady Be Good – all the lovely songs. We will probably change it every night. “Even songs that she only had a hit with in the UK, she only ever got asked to sing Every Time We Say Goodbye in the UK because of the war, people always asked for that on Forces Network.
“But she never really learned the words, so she often needed the words on a stand to remind her – she knew hundreds and hundreds of songs.
“But that always tickled me.”
Tina May and Brian Kellock Celebrate Ella and Oscar at Eden Court on Sunday, May 14.
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