Sunday, February 14, 2021

Jazz Stories V: Ella and Marilyn, Billie and Bob

If we are so lucky as to find work that we love, we still need to struggle with finding the right place to do it. Also the right people to hire us. And the right people with whom to share the fruits of our labor. For jazz musicians, work mostly existed in small jazz clubs, smoky places with loud conversations, people drinking perhaps a bit too much and many owned by Mafia bosses concerned about making money from it all. 


Here musical geniuses like Ella Fitzgerald sought to share her enormous talent as a singer and uplift people with a voice that could take them to heaven and back in a single musical phrase. And yet at the same time that the angels gathered around to listen, she—like so many jazz musicians—had to deal with people talking too loud or making obnoxious comments or bosses who made her enter the club through the back door or sometimes simply refused to hire her if they thought she didn’t have the right face or race or body build. 


The latter seemed to be the case at the Mocambo Jazz Club in Hollywood, where the manager refused to book Ella because he didn’t think she was glamorous enough. Marilyn Monroe advocated for her and promised she would sit at the front of the house every night and bring along other celebrities. Since money was the language businessmen speak best, the club owner agreed. During Ella’s run there in 1955, other movie stars like Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra joined Marilyn at the shows. When word got out that celebrities were present, perhaps some people attended just to “star-gaze.” But once they got there and heard the beauty and power of Ella’s singing, they needed no encouragement to come back. The shows were sold out every night and her engagement extended a week. As the word got out, invitations from larger venues started coming in. As Ella said, “After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.”


Remember Billie Holiday? She was as tough as nails and once when an audience member called her a racial slur, she broke a bottle of beer and drove him out of the club threatening him with the broken bottle. But it was exhausting to put up with constant racism. Once when she started singing Strange Fruit, again, someone shouted ugly words to her and she stopped singing. Movie star Bob Hope was in the club and told her, “You go back out there and sing. I’ll take care of that s.o.b.” And he did. 


This little story should inspire us all to consider how to use our privilege on behalf of justice and decency. Ella and Billie were well known stars in their own right, but as black artists in a racist culture, they didn’t have the same power and privilege. As white movie stars, Marilyn Monroe and Bob Hope had the power to influence people and they chose to use that power on behalf of these artists they admired. They don’t deserve any special recognition just for doing the right thing, but in a country where so few white folks spoke out (and still don’t), their actions stand out. And let’s remember that besides being decent human beings in this regard, they had another motivation—they wanted to hear Ella and Billie sing!!! As should we all. 


LISTENING: Anything Ella ever sang is worth a listen, but given this story’s theme, try Nice Work If You Can Get it. Enjoy!

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