Posted by Jay Livingston
Today is Ella Fitzgerald’s centennial – she was born April 25, 1917 – and this my only Ella story.
One night I was sitting at the bar in Bradley’s with two pianists who had been accompanists for great singers – Dave Frishberg, who worked briefly with Carmen McRae and Anita O’Day, and Tommy Flanagan, who for many years was Ella’s musical director. “I can’t play in sharp keys,” Frishberg said, exaggerating, and Tommy agreed. Jazz musicians prefer flat keys. That’s what they’re familiar with.*
“Did you ever try to change a key with Ella?” Frishberg asked.
“Yeah, if she did a song in A, sometimes I’d try playing the intro in A♭” Tommy said. “And she’d look over at me. ‘Is that my key?’”
In addition to everything else, she had perfect pitch.
Here are Ella and Tommy doing Errol Garner’s “Misty.” Ella does the first eight bars in B♭ but then moves up to the key of B (five sharps) for the remainder of the song.
*Rock, folk, bluegrass and other guitar-based music is usually in sharp keys – G, D, A, E. Anyone who starts guitar learns those chords; they’re easy because of the open strings. But jazz is horn-based. Jazz musicians are more likely to be playing tunes in five flats (D♭ major) than in one sharp (G major).