Random Prompt #298: What is your favorite work of art?
Looking up and to the right from my desk chair, near the door frame, I have a painting of the iconic 1949 Herman Leonard photograph of Ella Fitzgerald at Club Downbeat in New York City with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman looking on from a front row table. I had been trying to buy a print of this photo for a long time, but everywhere I looked it was temporarily out of stock, which prompted my fabulous, multi-talented daughter, Madeline to do this painting for me and it’s my favorite...for several reasons.
I grew up in a quasi-jazz house in the 60's and 70's, That is to say the background noise in our house was the jazz my parents listened to on the local public radio station WBFO 88.7 or the long defunct WADV 106.5. Today, 88.7 is public affairs NPR and 106.5 is new country and plays endless sagas about faux cowboys drinking beer on the back of pickup trucks. While WBFO played it pretty straight, WADV had personality with Buffalo Broadcast Hall of Famer, Fred Klestine spinning a unique jazz blend and wishing everyone a salubrious day. Or you could hear Bernie Sandler’s Big Band program playing Count Basie and Bennie Goodman. As great as they were, Basie and Goodman, didn't excite the imagination of my generation and in no way could compete with the coolness of The Beatles and Bowie. But, by osmosis I must have gotten them because by the late 70’s my attitudes toward jazz started to change when I heard stuff by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. through my friend the Doctor, who was and is, always a step ahead of everyone else.
As a kind of music snob, jazz had its limits for me. I dismissed anyone who didn’t compose their own music as second rate, especially jazz vocalists, who I deemed mere interpreters of song. Frank Sinatra was chief among these pedestrian interpreters and by the late 70’s I was more than a little sick of idiotic My Way and New York, New York. While my snobbery remains largely intact, it has become more informed and less monolithic. I still don’t quite get Sir Francis Blue Eyes, but the bluesy heartbreak of Billie Holiday, the depth and range of Nina Simone and the elegant grace of Ella Fitzgerald have rendered this resistance... silly. The ethereal phrasing of Ella on a song like Miss Otis Regrets, draws you into a drama where you can’t help but feel sympathy for a condemned adulterer meeting a too harsh fate. There’s not a single ounce of fat or a wasted breath in this lovely vocal.
Which, brings us to the photo. In both his narrative fiction and bouncy jazz poetry Jack Kerouac created a multitude of scenes just like the one depicted here in Leonard’s 1949 photo. Besides seeing it, just like in Kerouac I can so smell the smoke wafting in that room, I can hear waitresses taking orders, glasses clinking the kitchen door opening and closing while Ella belts out something snazzy like the The Lady is A Tramp to the stunned onlookers, chief among them Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Or maybe something more mellow like the 1944 number one hit Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall. The key to the whole photo is that joyous expression on Duke’s face because sitting at that front row table you know, no matter what Ella Fitzgerald was singing, that would be your expression too.
In the normal course of events a song or painting on a wall will get stale and worn out regardless of their greatness. At first you stop hearing and seeing them, but eventually your indifference might turn to annoyance (like when you hear Boston's More Than a Feeling for the billionth time). Madeline's painting, however, has been up near that door frame for years and it still excites me and evokes the sound of Ella Fitzgerald’s graceful and beautiful voice in my head every time I look at it and is a favorite, multidimensional work of art.