Written by Joan Curto
In commemoration of their centennials, much has been written about the lives, careers, awards, and accomplishments of Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne individually. But in my research for the upcoming show on November 17 at the Auditorium Theatre, something struck me: the similarities between the two women. Not just the fact that they were both black women, who lived during a time of significant racial inequality and segregation, yet rose to great heights in their respective careers. It was their beginnings, their paths to those heights, the happenstances of how both began their careers, and the coincidence that it began for both of them, unwittingly, just two years and roughly 20 blocks apart in Harlem.
Born just 66 days apart in 1917, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne walked similar paths in the early years of their life and career. Both women lost their fathers at an early age, one to death and one to divorce. Both found themselves, while still in their teens, having to find a way to make a living in New York. Through fortuity, or perhaps fate (because neither started out with the intention of becoming a singer), both women wound up working in nightclubs roughly 20 blocks apart in Harlem, which would serve as the trajectories for their future. Both forged careers that transcended category. Neither were simply a jazz singer, a movie star, nightclub entertainer, civil rights activist, and actress. Their careers were multi-faceted, spanning over six decades, and their bodies of work have earned them the titles of “legend.”
I won’t recount their biographies. There are several writers who have researched their lives in depth, and are worth reading. As personalities go, the differences seemed apparent. Ella was seen as unprepossessing and innocent and Lena, in her own words, described herself as “a real Cancer –sometimes sunshine, but mostly storm.” Those differences can be seen in their performances, I suppose, but I have seen storms in Ella and sweetness in Lena when watching performances of both.
Finally, for me, the similarities of both women are in the music they chose to sing. They surrounded themselves with great songwriters and songs. Ellington, Porter, Strayhorn, Rodgers & Hart, Mercer, Arlen, and many others that were part of the Great American Songbook gold. Allowing each to take songs and make them their own. It can be a little scary when paying tribute to an artist – legends, no less. Who could scat like Ella with abandon, whilst keeping such purity of tone? Who can smolder like Lena, digging into the lyric of a song with her ferocity? We’re not going to try to imitate their styles during our show, but to honor these legends and the music they sang. Combined, Ella and Lena recorded over 3,100 songs. With 7 exceptional vocalists – each bringing their own distinct style, and an 18-piece big band – the songs and the stories we will be sharing in November will honor their artistry and how each of these legendary women touched us and many of you with the songs they sang. Some songs will be familiar and some will surprise. And while we won’t be imitating, make no mistake: we’re going to swing and scat and strut and raise the roof of the Auditorium! Joyously!