England’s newspaper The Telegraph eulogized Norman Granz as “the most successful impresario in the history of jazz” in its 2001 obituary. Granz created five record labels, the best known being Verve. His artists included Count Basie, Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Art Tatum … well, the list goes on and on. And he stood for integration in post-war America of the 1940s and ‘50s both of performances and audiences. White or black, his performers received equal pay and accommodations.
But had Granz done nothing else than bring together Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, he’d still deserve a place in American Songbook history.
In 1956, when Granz teamed them in a Verve studio, both were internationally known stars. They had recorded a few numbers on Decca starting in the late ‘40s.
Fitzgerald was part of a stellar Hollywood Bowl show produced by Granz on Aug. 15, 1956, that comprised Fitzgerald, Peterson, Tatum, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich. Armstrong happened to appear on the same bill.
The next day, Granz brought Fitzgerald and Armstrong together to record 11 duets. Because of Armstrong’s heavy travel schedule, Granz recalled, “I think literally I might have had only a day or two days to do an album.”
And what an album it is: “Ella and Louis.” From the opening vocal by Armstrong on “A Foggy Day” to the closing moments of Fitzgerald and Armstrong on “Tenderly,” this is close to an hour of pure joy. Granz smartly followed it in 1957 with “Ella and Louis Again,” a double album this time, with a fine mix of duets and solo cuts. Both of these monumental recordings feature such Verve artists as Peterson, Rich, Louis Bellson, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
Those two albums are at the heart of a new release: “Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong Complete Studio Master Takes.” And if that’s all there was, that would be plenty.
But this handsome box set comes also with another of Granz’s brainstorms: high lights from the George Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess” performed by Armstrong and Fitzgerald, the third and final time Granz put them in the studio together. As the five-star Down Beat review said at the time, “As the tracks progress, you think she is cutting Armstrong — only to turn around and believe that Armstrong is cutting her. The truth, of course, is that they are outdoing themselves.”
And, at the risk of sounding like a late-night TV pitchman — But wait! There’s more! — it should be noted that the collection includes a short LP of the eight duets released on Decca.
Overall, 12 sides of vinyl, with a 12-page booklet of background and reviews, in a 1”-thick box that even features some padding to keep the contents secure — a very impressive presentation, but no less than these seminal recordings deserve.