One hundred years ago today the ‘First Lady of Song’ Ella Fitzgerald was born in Virginia USA. The iconic singer was first known as the finest female proponent of scat singing.
Wikipedia describe scat singing as ‘vocal improvisation with wordless vocals, nonsense syllables or without words at all. Scat singing is a difficult technique that requires singers with the ability to sing improvised melodies and rhythms using the voice as an instrument rather than a speaking medium.’
The legend that is Ella Fitzgerald sits alongside Billie Holliday as the greatest female jazz singer of all time, a name and legacy that will live on in perpetuity.
Sixteen years before Ella was born, the man known as ‘the Founding Father of Jazz’ was born into poverty in New Orleans. The grandson of slaves, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong was like Ella known as a mighty fine scat artist, as well as being an all round brilliant musician.
In 2001 I paid a working visit to New Orleans to speak at a fast ferry conference and managed to arrange a few days of leisure before my engagement.
I really loved my time there, with music being my over-riding memory of the trip. World famous Bourbon Street was a place of revelry – Larry Flynt’s girls strutted their stuff on the Hustler Club balcony, party goers carried their alcohol from bar to bar, voodoo souvenir shops traded until midnight and gumbo joints did a roaring trade.
Armstrong’s first professional gig was playing cornet and piano in a speakeasy in the area, at the time the States’ only location for legal brothels, whilst in 2001 it was one of the few places in the States that allowed such debauchery as drinking in the street.
Fabulous music wafted from many of the bars along the street – such was the talent on show that you only had to close your eyes to imagine Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan or John Lee Hooker.
I frequented many of the music bars, my favourite of which was the Funky Pirate. Cocktails such as the Hand Grenade & Shark Attack were great, but it was the music of Big Al Carson & The Blues Masters that was the real draw.
Described as 495 pounds of pure New Orleans Blues, Big Al perched himself on a stool and belted out fabulous numbers such as ‘Built For Comfort Not For Speed’ & ‘Take Your Drunken Ass Home’. A larger than life (& much bigger than Barry White!) character, he also engaged in plenty of banter with the females in the audience, describing himself as a love machine!
Catch a look at the incomparable Big Al here.
As well as Blues, New Awlins is of course synonymous with jazz. Back to Satchmo. He really is the father of the genre and the wonderful Jazz Museum pays homage to him and his peers.
I paid a visit and was delighted that I did. Many iconic instruments were on display including the great man’s ‘one man band’ kit made from an old chest, an oil drum, tin cans, some sticks and a pole.
Any music fan will be enthralled and leave the place a whole lot wiser regarding the history of the Louisiana and US music scene – Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Dr John, Kermit Ruffins, Harry Connick jr and many others also hail from the city.
Incredibly for me, I also greatly enjoyed another museum in New Orleans, the flamboyant Museum of the Mardi Gras. Filled with fabulous colourful ostentatious costumes and masks, the displays are amazing and well deserving of such a stage.
All in all I would count New Orleans as one of the best cities in the world in which to enjoy a few days.
As well as all of the music influences and night time activities, there is loads more to do such as visiting the French Quarter with its cotton plantation mansions & intricate wrought iron metalwork, floating down the Mississippi on a paddle steamer (Louis used to play on one of these too), riding a historic street car, ambling through Lafayette Cemetery with its grandiose graves and viewing Jackson Square with its fine buildings and talented street artists.
My final memory of the city was waiting to cross the street whilst the longest freight train that I had ever seen rumbled through. I must have waited twenty minutes for the level crossing gates to open. I only wish that I had a video record of the occasion.