Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday

Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra, at the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC.

Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra, at the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC.

Today marks the 100 anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth.  In his book Making a Difference in North Carolina, Hugh Morton included a similar photograph to the one above with the caption,

Ella Fitzgerald, at age 18, sings A Ticket, A Tasket with Chick Webb’s Orchestra.  They played in North Carolina, but this photo is in the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Hm . . .

Fitzgerald would have been eighteen in 1935 to 1936.  According to Stuart Nicholson’s Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Biography (2004) and Ella Fitzgerald: The Chick Webb Years & Beyond by Ron Fritts & Ken Vail (2003), Fitzgerald recorded that song for the first time on May 2, 1938 at Decca studios in New York.  Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra first performed at the Howard Theatre for one-week engagement that opened on November 22, 1935.  Hugh Morton would have been fourteen years old.  Perhaps this photograph is from a later date?

Another Morton Mystery is at hand.  I learned late in the day that today was Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday, so this will need some follow up.  Can any readers of A View to Hugh fill in some of the story?


According to Fritts and Vail, Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra also played a one-week engagement at the Howard Theatre from March 26 through April 1, 1937.  Fitzgerald would have been nineteen, just shy of her twentieth birthday., while Hugh Morton would have been sixteen.  It was billed as an “Easter Swing Session” and a “Gay Holiday Revue” with Bardue Ali, Charles Linton, and Taft Jordan.  Fitzgerald and the orchestra returned to the Howard Theatre for another one-week stand from January 28 through February 3, 1938.  The following week, the entourage began a five-week stint in Boston at the Flamingo Room at Levaggi’s Restaurant.  According to Nicholson, Fitzgerald “worked out the outline of ‘A-Ticket, A-Tasket'” at Levaggi’s.”

Fitzgerald and the orchestra’s next one-week stop at the Howard Theatre came on March 31, ending on April 6.  An advertisement for the engagement portrays her as “First Lady of Swing ‘Ella A-Tisket A-Takset Fitzgerald.'”  Webb, however, did not perform; he entered John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a back operation.  He left the hospital the following week. Webb would died on June 16, 1939, but Fitzgerald continued to play with his orchestra—which playbills began to list as “her Chick Webb Orchestra” or other such variations. At some point soon there after the design and the initials on the front of the music stands changed to EF.

The next appearance by Fitzgerald at the Howard, according to Fritts and Vail is a one-week gig from March 7 to 13, 1941. This performance seems to be an unlikely candidate for Morton’s negatives. He attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia before enrolling at UNC in the autumn of 1939, so his proximity to Washington, D.C. coupled with the release date of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” favors a twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two, year-old Fitzgerald. If so, then Morton’s negatives capture Fitzgerald on the cusp of an important turning point in her a career.

Taking “A Tisket A Tasket” to Task

In a 1981 interview by Ron Wellburn, Teddy MacRae spoke about the origins of “A-Tisket A-Takset.”  He said, “That was Ella own thing.  It was her own idea. That was her thing that she would sing up in Yonkers. . . . ”  Fitzgerald, born in Newport News, Virginia, was raised in Yonkers from the age of three until her mother died suddenly of a heart attack in 1932.  The lyrics are based up a very old nursery rhyme.  MacRae continued, “We [the orchestra] had nothing to do with that. We called Van [Alexander] to put it down on paper for her, and Van made the arrangements.”

Biographer Robertson, quoting liner notes from the 1986 Swingtime LP Ella Fitzgerald Forever Young, volume 2 (ST 1007) quoted Alexander as saying “I was terribly busy at the time so I did nothing about the tune. But Ella approached me again after about a month, and I went home and put the melody and her lyrics together, copying all the parts myself, and took it to Webb.  He rehearsed the song for about an hour in the afternoon and that very night, from the Savoy, he broadcast it. And that’s how ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket” was born and popularized.”

For a version of the story from her at the time, we turn to The Ella Fitzgerald Companion (1998) that includes a 1938 New York Post article by Earl Wilson in which Fitzgerald said, “we was playing’ Boston in April, and I says to Al Feldman [the birth name of Van Alexander], our arranger, ‘Look here, I got something terrific! They’re swing’ everything else—why not nursery rhymes?’  I had most of the words wrote out, so we sat down and jammed around till we got the tune, and that’s the way it was.”  Well, that’s Ella’s version of the story.  Up next for yet a different take . . .  the biography First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record by Geoffrey Fidelman (1994).

In that his biography Fidelman notes that the band had nightly broadcasts of their performances at the Levaggi.  His spin on the story is that Feldman said he was so busy because of the constant need for new material for the radio broadcasts.  “I turned her down flat,” said Feldman recalling when Fitzgerald approached him because of his workload.  Fidelman then notes that Ella again approached Feldman a few days later [not a month as Teddy MacRae recalled.]  Fidelman states Click Webb “put ‘Tasket’ on the air almost immediately and the band played it nightly for almost a month before the May 2 recording date for Decca, and this version has the song’s debut at Levaggi’s not the Savoy.

And of course there’s yet another version of the story that Fidelman refutes with his research.  I cannot sort out all the stories here, but in each of these accounts, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” comes together after the February 1938 engagement at the Howard Theatre. If Hugh Morton photographed Fitzgerald then, she wasn’t singing the song that burst her into stardom.  Either that, or there was another performance by Ella and the Webb band not recorded in the extensive chronicle constructed by Fritts and Vail.

We may never know . . .

Note: The final two sections added on 26 April

The “Man Who Pastorized Swing”

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth pointed out a few unidentified jazz photographs and asked me if I could write up a post on them to see who they might be. One photograph, seen here, ended up being easily identified: it is big band leader Tony Pastor (1907-1969), “The Man Who Pastorized Swing.”

Tony Pastor performing at UNC, May 16 or 17, 1941

The background was the giveaway. On the upper left are the bottom of the numbers “941,” and on the right are an “R” and the rounded edge of another letter. A quick check through the UNC yearbook Yackety Yack revealed the bands who played at UNC dances for that year. That tidbit and some name “Googling” matched the face in the Morton photograph with the face of Pastor in other portraits on the Web for the easy ID.

Pastor’s band was the headline act for the Spring 1941 Junior and Senior dances on Friday and Saturday, 16-17 May 1941. Pastor’s troupe performed four dance sets, and the 5:00-5:25 dance was broadcast “coast-to-coast” over the NBC radio network via WPTF in Raleigh. As far as we can tell, this is the only surviving negative of Pastor’s performances at Chapel Hill. Pastor also performed three gigs at the Carolina Theater in Durham that Thursday at 3:00, 7:00, and 9:30. The tickets for the matinee shows were 28 cents, while the evening show cost 44 cents.

The drummer in the background of Morton’s photograph is either Johnny Morris or Morrison (I’ve see both in print but I think it’s Morris). One of Pastor’s signature tunes was “Paradiddle Joe,” which featured the drummer. YouTube has a  version with Henry “Riggs” Guidotti on the kit. Not pictured is Eugenie Baird, who joined Pastor’s band just two weeks before coming to Durham and Chapel Hill.

How did the students rate Pastor? Well, the Daily Tar Heel wrote a review on 1 June 1941 of the bands who came to campus for dances. They decided that Pastor, “even to those addicted to Paradiddle Joe and Let’s Do It, was disappointing. By Saturday night his blasting, commercial arrangements were grating on everybody near enough to the bandstand to hear him.”


We’ve written only two posts so far about Hugh Morton’s jazz photographs, so it seemed like a good time for another post.  Here goes . . . and if you promise not to bust your conk, I’ll promise not to beat up my chops!

Among the unidentified jazz negatives are three that I suspected from the music stands (and later confirmed) are from a Cab Calloway performance.  We can’t say where the frolic pad for the show was, so please beef us if you are hep to that.  If you were there, then I’m sure it must have been a real killer-diller with plenty of mitt pounding, so please slide your jib about it with the rest of us.  If not and you dig research, get in there!

In the photograph above, Calloway looks dicty, in a fine vine, with two buddy-ghees wearing some hard drapes.  Actually, all three gates are togged to the bricks!!!  One photograph only shows an unknown canary, a fine dinner donning flowery dry-goods that may be Calloway’s older sister Blanche . . . but that’s just a guess.

And the third photograph depicts Calloway and the chirp above hittin’ some Armstrongs.

Just having these negatives is a real mezz, but their condition is sadder than a map.  The 127 format roll film negatives are on an acetate base, and antihalation layer deterioration has caused them to have a splotchy blue discoloration. (And that’s not jive talk!)  Scanning the negatives in grayscale eliminates the blue discoloration, but the images still retain a splotchy look.  Despite that bring down, they are likely from the late 1930s and I suspect fairly rare.

If you got all that, then you are a hep cat that’s got your boots on!  If you are unhep, you may want to consult the bible, The New Cab Calloway’s Hepster Dictionary: Language of Jive [an online list; the 1944 edition of his dictionary is an appendix in Calloway’s autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher & Me (1976).]

Pheeewww!  I think I’ll head home now and guzzle some foam!

Who Am I?—Jazz Edition

In Stephen’s post from last November 6, New Orleans, 1945, he mentioned a set of big band photos (featuring Benny Goodman) that Morton took sometime in/around his college years. Having sorted through most of the negatives at least once, I’ve been wondering where the heck those big band photos were . . . until last Thursday, when I found at least some of them, in an envelope labeled “Orchestras” and smushed in the bottom of a particularly dirty, messy box of film. [Editor’s Note: You may not find “smush” in your dictionary, but a Google search found 384,000 references in 0.07 seconds and a jazz piece must be hep—even if the word goes back to the early 19th century.]

Benny Goodman orchestra performing in Washington, DC, late 1930s-early 1940s

None of the “Orchestras” photos are labeled, however, and my knowledge of jazz history is severely limited. I was able to identify Goodman (above) thanks to the clarinet, the big “G,” and—duh—the fact that Morton photographed a poster for the event that touts the Benny Goodman Orchestra’s “First Time on Any Washington Stage”:

Poster for Benny Goodman orchestra performance in Washington, DC, late 1930s-early 1940s

The strip of images below proved a little more tricky, but not much. When I zoomed in on the kick drum, I was able to read this inscription: “‘To The Bobcats—Jeff Keate.” A bit of Googling revealed that Jeff Keate was a cartoonist, and the Bobcats (or Bob Cats) were a Dixieland group made up of members from the Bob Crosby (brother of Bing Crosby) Orchestra. This information led me to identify Ray Bauduc on drums and Bob Haggart on bass, and to discover that Bauduc and Haggart wrote two big hits in the late 1930s: “South Rampart Street Parade,” and “Big Noise from Winnetka” (a bass and drums duet, which they were probably performing when Morton took these very photos). Thanks to YouTube, you can watch a fully orchestrated 1943 performance of the song! (Keep an eye out for that kick drum, and stay tuned for the Haggart/Bauduc solo in the middle). [OK, another Editor’s Note: you just have to check out the YouTube clip!]

Unidentified jazz drummer and upright bassist, circa late 1930s-early 1940s

Unfortunately, such helpful visual clues are few and far between. So, I decided to make this the inaugural post in a series I am inventively titling “Who Am I?” I picked out a few of Morton’s jazz photos, and am hoping to enlist readers’ help in identifying some of the musicians pictured below. I’m not sure if these were groups/artists that played in North Carolina (e.g., at UNC-Chapel Hill), or if Morton traveled to see them (as he did Goodman in Washington DC). I have no idea if these are big name players or unknown locals, but I am fairly certain that they were taken in the 1940s or early 1950s. Any ideas?

Unidentified jazz drummer, circa 1940s-early 1950s

Unidentified jazz saxophonist, circa 1940s-early 1950s

Unidentified jazz drummer, circa 1940s-early 1950s

UPDATE, 3/3/08: Here are two more photos that may shed additional light on the Jo Jones/Herschel Evans/Count Basie Orchestra possibility. The first image below was taken at the same event as the saxophonist image above (looks like a house party of some kind), and shows some of the other players. The second image below was taken at the same event as the image above with the drummer (Jones?) sitting behind his kit. (This event appears to be in an auditorium).

Unidentified jazz group, circa 1940s-early 1950s

Unidentified jazz drummer, circa 1940s-early 1950s, with man (bass player?) looking on

New Orleans, 1945

Canal Street at night, New Orleans, 1945

Why feature photographs made in New Orleans in 1945 by a North Carolina photographer? Because they are great examples of the hidden riches that await us! They also serve as good samples to explore the far reaches of blogging on the Internet as an aid in processing a photograph collection. Plus, Hugh Morton loved jazz.

The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, ran an article on Sunday, 27 September 1942 about Morton’s return to campus to photograph the prior day’s football game for the paper before his Tuesday entrance as a technical sergeant in the Army’s photography division. The feature also noted that Morton reminisced on how he “got his start at Carolina by taking pictures of Hal Kemp, University alumnus.” James Hal Kemp (1904-1940), who attended UNC from 1922 to 1926 but did not graduate, was one of the most noted “sweet-swing” band leaders of the 1930s. (Kemp’s papers are in the Southern Historical Collections in Wilson Library). The article stated that Morton was so pleased with his photographs that, “He now has pictures of every nationally known band in the country with over 100 snaps of Benny Goodman, some of which have appeared in Downbeat, music magazine.” We’ll be keeping all four of our eyes open for those.

The photographs featured in this post are found in an envelope that contains twenty negatives and is labeled, simply, “New Orleans.” One of those negatives is a night scene looking down Bourbon Street. On the right is the The Old Absinthe House Bar and farther down the street is Club Bali; on the left is the Famous Door Cocktail Lounge. The automobile license plates on the right are dated 1945, confirming the date on Godchaux’s marquee in the image above.

Bourbon Street at night, New Orleans, 1945

What was happening with Hugh Morton in 1945? He was wounded in March, a few days after photographing General Douglas MacArthur reviewing the 25th Division on New Caledonia, and received his honorable discharge from the United States Army on 30 June. He married Julia Taylor on 8 December.

Within the batch of New Orleans negatives are a few outdoor scenes depicting a couple wearing longer coats, suggesting he was there during a colder time of the year. Duke University’s football team defeated the University of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on January 1st. Perhaps Morton was there to photograph the football game? Thus far we’ve not located any negatives of that event. Maybe he was on leave? One negative depicts a group seated in a hotel room: Morton in civilian clothes, another man in a military uniform, and two women.

Captain John Handy, New Orleans, 1945.

Whatever the date of his visit, Morton headed to the jazz clubs with camera in hand and he photographed three performances. Only one set is identifiable from the content: two negatives of Captain John Handy (1900-1971) and an unidentified upright bass player.

Captain John Handy, New Orleans, 1945.

A second setting records another group, apparently a quintet, the only recognizable character being the bopping Santa above the stage backdrop. Santa says it might still be around New Year’s Day.

Jazz quintet, New Orleans, 1945

To round out the photographs of jazz musicians, here’s an unidentified piano player in what appears to be yet a third club setting:

Piano player, New Orleans, 1945

Any jazz historians out there who can place a name to some of these unnamed faces?