After Six Decades in the Vault, 'Ella at Zardi's' Brings New Shine to Ella Fitzgerald's Centennial

Nov 9, 2017

Ella Fitzgerald was a big star on the cusp of something bigger when she began an engagement at Zardi’s Jazzland, in the heart of Hollywood, during the first several weeks of 1956.

A jazz singer of unerring instinct and peerless ebullience, she had just left Decca to become the first artist on Verve Records, founded expressly for that purpose by her manager, Norman Granz.

Tape was rolling during one night of the run, and it captured Fitzgerald in relaxed, magnificent form at a pivotal moment in her career. But the recording has never circulated, sitting in the label vault for more than 60 years. It will finally see daylight, bringing a finishing flourish to Fitzgerald’s centennial celebration, with the release of Ella at Zardi’s on Dec. 1.  

The album features two consecutive sets, each a vivid illustration of Fitzgerald’s live spark as an improviser, her airtight control of rhythm and pitch, and her bantering bond with an audience. She was sharing a bill at the club with the bebop clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, and the mood in the room was both attentive and boisterous.

Granz introduces Fitzgerald before her first set, making an earnest pronouncement: “For me, she’s the greatest there is.” You can hear his intro in this exclusive premiere of “It All Depends on You,” a pop standard never released on any album by Fitzgerald.

The recording was made on Feb. 2, 1956, two and half weeks into Fitzgerald’s engagement at the club. Days later, on Feb. 7, she entered the Capitol Records Studio to begin recording her Verve debut, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. That would kick off her landmark run of songbook albums, a breakthrough both for Fitzgerald as a recording artist and for the Great American Songbook itself.

Fitzgerald’s debut album had been a songbook effort as well: Ella Sings Gershwin, made with the pianist Ellis Larkins, and released on Decca in 1950 on 10-inch LP. But Decca resisted Granz’s subsequent entreaties to make a follow-up of Cole Porter songs: “They rejected it on the grounds that Ella wasn’t that kind of singer,” he later recalled.

By early 1956, Granz had pried Fitzgerald away from Decca, using a shrewd bit of leverage. As Tad Hershorn chronicles in Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice, Decca had been about to release the soundtrack to The Benny Goodman Story, a major biopic starring Steve Allen as Goodman, when someone realized that several of the most prominent musicians on the album were under exclusive contract to Granz.

When Decca came seeking permissions, he agreed on the sole condition that Fitzgerald be released from her contract. Then he announced the formation of Verve Records, a new label designed to accommodate popular music as well as jazz. The bright young arranger-conductor Buddy Bregman was enlisted to write orchestrations for the Cole Porter album, and Fitzgerald began rehearsing Porter’s songs during off hours at the club where she was working.

This was Zardi’s Jazzland, at Hollywood and Vine, around the corner from Capitol Studios. “Zardi’s was one of the better L.A. jazz rooms of the time,” notes Kirk Silsbee in the liner notes to Ella at Zardi’s. “With a Polynesian interior, it outclassed the cozy Haig and Tiffany, and slightly ratty Peacock Alley and Jazz City.”

Fitzgerald had played a few of Hollywood’s posher rooms — like the Mocambo, which she headlined thanks in part to the lobbying of a celebrity admirer, Marilyn Monroe. A later engagement at the Crescendo, in the early ‘60s, would generate the material for a 4-CD boxed set called Twelve Nights in Hollywood, released on Verve in 2009.

The atmosphere at Zardi’s Jazzland was upscale but suited to a real jazz constituency: its booking ran toward the major names of the day, like Erroll Garner and Stan Getz. (After Zardi’s closed in the late ‘50s, the room became a campy haunt called The Haunted House, featured in cult movies like It’s a Bikini World. It was later home to a succession of strip clubs.)

Fitzgerald’s trio for the engagement included a supportive, unflashy rhythm team of bassist Vernon Alley and drummer Frank Capp. The pianist was Don Abney, a session ace with a George Shearing-esque approach to voicing chords. Abney had backed Fitzgerald onscreen the previous year in Pete Kelly’s Blues, a noir musical film starring (and directed by) Jack Webb.

Throughout Ella at Zardi’s, you hear Fitzgerald gamely taking requests and trading quips with the crowd. Intriguingly, given the impending recording session, she sings just one Cole Porter tune, at the request of songwriter Gordon Jenkins, who was in the audience. And the request, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” is among the Porter songs that doesn’t appear on her studio album.

Instead, the set list ranges through popular hits of the day — like “The Tender Trap,” which she’d recorded for Decca — and staples from her playbook. Among the highlights are “A Fine Romance,” jaunty and insouciant, and “Gone With the Wind,” at a honeydrip tempo that one audience member identifies as “sexy.” Fitzgerald also does killer impressions of both Rose Murphy and Louis Armstrong on her version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and dedicates “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” to its cowriter, Van Alexander, who’s seated near the stage.

What’s evident throughout the album, besides Fitzgerald’s sheer mastery, is her in-the-moment presence. She’s responsive to the crowd, feeding off their energy. Hershorn, a longtime archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers in Newark, recently had a chance to hear Ella at Zardi’s. Asked to reflect on it, he said: “Her relationship to the audience, and the audience to her, just creates the perfect situation where you have fire, dry tinder and a breeze.”

That may be never clearer than on “Airmail Special,” the penultimate track on the album, and a reliable scat showcase for Fitzgerald. At one point, in the middle of a spontaneous jag, she ad libs: “Every time you catch us and you catch a show you find we do it just a little different.” That’s demonstrably true, and Ella at Zardi’s is a shining example: it has the silvery, elusive magic of something never to be repeated, though we’re fortunate enough that it was documented.

Ella At Zardi’s will be released on Verve/UMe on Dec. 1; you can preorder it here.