When the Queen of Jazz came to New Zealand

by Redmer Yska / 20 May, 2018
Ella Fitzgerald in 1945. Photo/Getty Images

Ella Fitzgerald in 1945. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Ella Fitzgerald

Things didn’t go to plan when jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald played Wellington, so it was Harry M Miller to the rescue. 

The Twist was on high rotation when the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, came here in 1960, but she was still greeted as a sensation. Most of our main centres had smoke-filled basements where cool cats in black turtlenecks flocked to hear jazz until the wee small hours. And every local jazz singer tried to swing like sweet-voiced Ella.

When rookie promoter Harry M Miller signed her for a New Zealand tour, Fitzgerald was already the most famous jazz singer of her day. Tours by big-name artists were rare at the time, and expensive tickets to her shows sold out fast.

Miller, just 25, was nervous. Showing the attention to detail that would make him famous in Australia, he prepared by buying a silver tea service and fine china set for a leisurely afternoon tea with his star.

She was booked to perform two shows in Wellington on December 6, the first at 6.30pm. But the turboprop Electra from Australia was late, ruining any idea of a relaxed cuppa. The plane touched down a nerve-racking 20 minutes before the first concert was due to start, as Miller waited at the airport with flowers – and a Cadillac.

He wrote in his memoir: “This young promoter was beside himself … I had all but destroyed the bunch of gladioli I planned to present on arrival … I nonetheless handed her the flowers when she touched down – what was left of them anyway. ‘I think you’re going to need some more flowers,’ she said, laughing.”

Fitzgerald with Marilyn Monroe in 1954. Photo/Getty Images

Fitzgerald with Marilyn Monroe in 1954. Photo/Getty Images

Then came a whirlwind dash from the airport to the Town Hall, where a crowded house was growing impatient with local warm-up acts. Fitzgerald then burst out of the wings, blowing kisses and doing a cha-cha, to tumultuous applause.

Miller’s problems weren’t over: a faulty amplifier prevented the audience from hearing “the voice of jazz”. The Evening Post reviewer seethed: “Her voice came across as thin, brittle and sometimes unintelligible. So bad was the distortion that after singing a muffled version of Caravan, the great negress pleaded, ‘Please fix it. I feel so rotten up here.’”

Distorted amplification all but ruined the early show, which the Post called “embarrassing”. Fortunately, Miller and a screwdriver solved the sound crisis in time for the 8pm show, and her performance was described as “great and ebullient”.

Fitzgerald effortlessly swung through her hits, from medium-tempo favourites such as Lady Be Good to ballad Moonlight in Vermont and But Not for Me, the zippier How High the Moon and her first hit, A-Tisket, A-Tasket.

Performing at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Photo/Getty Images

Performing at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Photo/Getty Images

The Post reviewer made special mention of her performance of her hit song Mack the Knife, noting that she changed key as many as six times. Kiwis were lucky to hear the song at all – at the time, Bobby Darin’s pop version was banned from airplay on all National Broadcasting Service radio stations. The presence of sheath knives in some recent bodgie murders lay behind the decision.

Fitzgerald was 42 years old at the time and following a frenetic touring schedule that saw her on the road for as many as 45 weeks a year. By the late 1950s, she’d gained the professional recognition she deserved, especially in her own country where she and other black artists battled ceaseless racial bigotry.

The election of a new American president, John F Kennedy, in 1960 helped hasten that change. Weeks after her New Zealand shows, Fitzgerald flew home to sing at his inauguration gala concert.

African-American artists were heavily represented at the Washington event held in the middle of a snowstorm: Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, even actor Sidney Poitier. Said the President: “Tonight we saw excellence.”

This article was first published in the May 5, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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