Sylvia never missed a chance to hear Ella Fitzgerald. That night’s appearance at the Apollo Theater was no exception. The very first time she saw Ella at the Savoy Ballroom, with the Chick Webb Orchestra, was like tasting the sweet syrup of a candied yam at the back of her throat. And when Ella sang, “A-Tisket-A-Tasket,” turning herself into a little girl who tried to find a lost yellow basket, Sylvia thought of all the childish things she wanted to hold on to. She’d once gone to the back stage door at the rear of the Savoy where fans waited for musicians to come out and sign autographs. There was a crush of people but Sylvia was too shy to push her way through to get one. But what she got was even better. Ella treated the crowd to an acappella version of “A-Tisket-A-Tasket” that had everyone squealing when she sang the words: “Tiskit, Tasket, I lost my yellow basket” in the whiny voice of a five year old not getting her way. It pleased Sylvia that Ella was heavy-set, like herself, with a voice that could cast a spell over an audience without any attention paid to the difficulty her dress had keeping her body inside it.
Sylvia never knew her parents and was raised in a colored children’s orphan asylum, just north of the Bronx. She’d read that Ella was there for a short time after her mother died. The people in charge made sure she got her three squares a day, received Salvation Army clothing and learned her three R’s. But while Sylvia was taken care of, she never felt cared for. However, the dance craze, which grabbed hold of the country in the 1920’s, hugged itself around her like no one else ever had. The radio gave Sylvia a crash course in the music of the day. By the time she hit the dance floor, what she’d been listening to tingled in every joint of her body. Men and women, who would’ve never given Sylvia a second look, wanted to partner up with her. And if it was a night when Ella was appearing, she’d dance until closing time, as the band squeezed all the swing out of the last song they played.
Sylvia believed it would always be that way. But the War came and boys who were dancing partners left to do their manly duty; and girls exchanged their bobby socks for stockings, taking over the jobs their boyfriends and husbands had done. Because of the shortage of men, Sylvia often danced with other women on Friday and Saturday nights when she went to the Savoy. However, many refused to dance with anyone, especially on the last one of the night, saying they were saving it for their sweethearts who would come home and pick up the dance right where they left off. But the War lasted longer than anyone expected. And the music turned toward a more downhearted mood and away from the light, bouncy tunes Sylvia loved to hear Ella sing, like “Chew-Chew-Chew, Your Bubble Gum”, “Five O’Clock Whistle”, and “Deedle-De-Dum.”
Sylvia took her seat in the orchestra of the Apollo, a few rows from the stage, as the audience continued to file in. She didn’t want to believe that a drum beat in her ears and shoe leather on a dance floor had lost the youthful sizzle it had before the War. If that was true, she’d come to the right place. Who but Ella could take a song like, “Into Each Life, Some Rain Must Fall,” and make Sylvia feel she was still too young for the Blues.
Ella parted the curtains slightly at the end of the stage and looked at the audience. Her eyes hopscotched over people filing in and those already seated. But Ella couldn’t find the woman, like she always did, when performing in New York. The first time she saw her was at the Savoy. Chick Webb had died and Ella took over as band leader with war brewing overseas. She was worried that guys in the band and people who paid to hear them play would think she wasn’t good enough to have her name on the marquee where Webb’s had been. Ella remembered standing off to the side of the stage, listening to the band doing “Stairway to the Stars”, and waiting for her cue to approach the microphone. Her eyes caught the hostile stare before anything else. It was heat the color of tar, coming right out of the woman’s eyes toward Ella. She jerked her head away, just as she would’ve done if her hand had reached into a pot of scalding water. Ella steadied herself and moved to the mic in step with the bass player’s strumming lead-in to the first landing of the “Stairway to the Stars”. By the end of the second chorus, Ella relaxed. The horns sprayed the air with the melody and it floated through her ears, nose and throat. When she opened her mouth for another climb into the heavens, everything she needed from the band was right there in her voice.
Let’s build a stairway to the stars
And climb that stairway to the stars
Yes, we’re climbing, climbing
the stairway to the stars, stars, stars
Sounds of violins
way out yonder where the blue begins
The moon will guide us
as we go drift, drift, drifting along
Ella finger snapped herself into a groove that danced in her shoulders. She made eye contact with the woman again. But the burning tar in the whites of her eyes had cooled to warm fudge from Ella’s honey-sweetened voice. Ella took in the rest of the woman, who was high-waisted and healthy in the hips. The hostility made sense. A woman of Ella’s size knew how it felt to be put down. She’d probably schooled herself in using her eyes to put people in their place before they did it to her. And who better to cut with your eyes than someone just like you. But Ella must’ve changed her mind. Because that was the only time that disapproval burned in the woman’s eyes.
Ella had spent most of her life wiping those looks off people’s faces. She did whatever it took to give them something to think about other than how she looked. Ella was eight years old when the “Charleston” stepped into an America waiting for something to get it up on its feet after the hangover of World War I. Once she saw a dance, it was a snapshot her body put into motion instantly. Ella and a few friends would sneak down on the train from Yonkers to Harlem and find out what new dances were creating a commotion at the Savoy. She was the one kids and grown-ups gathered around, if they wanted the latest steps to “The Shuffle off to Buffalo” and the “Susie Q.” Swift as Ella’s eyes were to catch on to a new dance, her ears were even quicker. She listened on the radio to the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell. And their voices washed through her ears, into her throat and out of her mouth.
Ella was all of seventeen in 1934, when she decided to try her luck at one of the auditions in a Harlem amateur night contest at the Apollo. The ache of her mother’s death, two years before, from a heart attack at the age of thirty-eight, was still with her. A few months later, Ella’s stepfather was stricken with a fatal heart attack as well. She never got along with him and felt dying was his way of doing them both a favor by leaving Ella alone for good and following, into eternity, the one person he cared about the most. Ella went to live with an aunt in Harlem. But with a younger sister and several cousins living in the apartment, there were too many voices vying to be the center of attention for Ella to have the audience to display her talents.
Since her family couldn’t provide what she needed, Ella satisfied her cravings, earning nickels in the streets and in off-the-beaten path joints where there were contests for hoofers, singers and anyone playing whatever pieced together instrument might make a joyful noise. Ella dropped out of school, making extra money running numbers and being a lookout for sporting houses. She was picked up for truancy and sent to a colored children’s orphan asylum. But the rules and punishments for breaking them proved too much for someone with as much giddy-up as Ella. She soon ran away and was living hand to mouth in Harlem when the Apollo started regular amateur night shows.
Ella intended to tap some shoe leather into the floor of the stage. But she heard that a well known sister dance duo was scheduled to go on in brocade studded dresses and shiny dancing pumps. She slid into a pit of doubts about herself, which wasn’t helped by wearing a shabby, patch work of a dress and men’s brogans. Ella told the MC she’d changed her mind and would sing instead. She stepped into the spotlight on stage and started to sing a few bars of ‘The Object of My Affection’. But her voice faltered. Ella heard murmurs and restlessness in the audience. The MC stopped her and gently asked that she start over. The piano player began the intro to the song again in the key she asked for. Ella took another breath and opened her mouth.
The object of my affection
will change my complexion
from bright to rosy red.
The sound of the words sparkled in her throat, showing the way out of the dark dungeon she’d fallen into. The incandescence of Ella’s voice spread through the Apollo. The audience held its breath and then drenched her in applause. Ella knew she’d found the ‘objects of her affection’ that would never let her down. And she promised herself never to take either for granted.
Since Ella didn’t look the part of someone whose voice brought out the whoopee in even the most hard-hearted Hannahs and Henrys, musicians had to be persuaded to hear her after being turned off by their first impression. This was the case with band leader, Chick Webb, when a fellow musician introduced him to Ella as a possible vocalist for his band. Webb was brutally frank in his lack of interest. However, after much cajoling, he reluctantly agreed to listen, and was brought to attention by her clear as water voice that allowed him to hear all the way through it with nothing in the way to muddy it up. But what impressed him just as much was the hard-wired nerve it took to remain unfazed by his harsh words and still do what she came to his apartment to do. Webb knew something about getting your props from people ready to write you off after just one look. His runt-sized body and hunched back had folks assuming he was a circus curiosity when he first broke into the music business. But once Webb showed off his wares on the drums, he left the hands of many a drummer death, dumb and numb. Not stopping there, he went on to lead one of the top bands of the 1930’s, setting up housekeeping at the Savoy and daring any band to come into his house and evict him. Webb heard and felt something of himself in Ella. So he took a chance that paid off big time.
In the years just after Chick Webb’s death and the start of the Second World War, Ella’s records weren’t rising to the top of the hit parade, as they once did; and there was a younger crop of boy and girl singers, like Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford, whose matinee idol faces and narrow hips were talked about as much as their singing. But what caught most of Ella’s attention was the change in her voice. It had been bottled up in her head, coming out through her nose and mouth. The years of seasoning caused the sound to ripen, swelling out of the stomach into the chest and throat. When the pressure rising up in Ella’s throat could no longer be held back, the cork popped, leaving a fizz around her voice that hadn’t been there before. This change altered the way she used her tongue, lips and teeth when taking flight into scat singing. For years, Ella had easily chased down the somersaults out of the mouths of musicians like Louis Armstrong. Eventually, she figured out how to make spitting images of sounds played on just about any instrument.
Sylvia still wasn’t comfortable going to theaters like the Apollo or clubs that were built for sitting, without much room for the dancing urge to enter a foot race with a band. But she did it, reluctantly, as a favor to her friends who wanted to see where a younger, up and coming, group of musicians were headed. Wherever they were headed, Sylvia didn’t want to watch from a chair. And the War, having turned people her age away from the good times which were so much a part of being young, began to push Sylvia and her friends away from dancing where one good twirl deserved another.
Sylvia knew Wardell from high school, a smooth talker whose words were as slick as his processed hair. He rarely gave her more than a nod at school. However, when Wardell spotted her cutting some serious steps into the dance floor of the Savoy, the nod he gave her was followed by his hand reaching for hers. Wardell didn’t reach out to many girls. They were the ones usually doing the reaching. So even though he talked a lot of shuck and jive, Sylvia was never more excited when he stopped talking and gave his undivided attention to the moves she swung his way.
There were two others, a white girl and boy who came together but never danced with one another. His name was Danny and all he did was listen to the band and never said much. That was great for Wardell who liked people who were all ears, especially while he held court. The girl’s name was Anna and had chubby arms and legs and a topsy, turvy head of hair like Little Orphan Annie in the Funny papers. When Wardell asked her to dance, Sylvia was impressed by how quickly she caught on. As Wardell continued to make his tour of eligible dance partners, Sylvia went over and introduced herself to Anna. And and in no time had her doing the “lindy hop.”
That’s how it started. But it wasn’t until after they’d gone their separate ways that Sylvia realized the special bond between them worked best when they were confined to the Savoy. Some of the young men, that the War didn’t take away, like Wardell and Danny, were taken away by the music of a new crop of musicians who didn’t see dancing going hand in glove with what they were playing in small clubs and after hour spots. Even Anna fell under the spell of one of the girl singers, named Sarah Vaughan who was part of the new music scene and whose voice moved around so much from tone to tempo that Sylvia could never follow her. Sylvia’s final break with her dancing chums from the Savoy occurred when she discovered that Wardell and Anna broke the unspoken dance rule of never moving any closer to one another than the brushing of a shirt against a blouse and trousers against a skirt. Anna tried to explain that what happened was less about wanting to find out what it was like to dance underneath each other’s clothes than getting the comfort they needed after Danny turned his head and heart away from them in favor of Charlie Parker. Sylvia could only shake her head. How dumb did Anna think she was? She never knew Danny that well. But whatever Anna and Wardell felt about losing Danny was just an excuse to satisfy a hunger for each other’s skin that was at least equal to the give and take of their bodies on the dance floor. And skin color was part of it. As someone in the low brown color scheme of the world, Sylvia saw enough men and women of both races grabbing after the light, bright and sho’ nuff white, as well as the beige, berry and darkest cherry, to know that color was never far from anything that happened between day and night. Sylvia had to admit that when she bedded down with a man of whatever color, which wasn’t that often, the feeling was neither as good as she hoped nor as bad as she feared. And compared to where dancing took her, it was no contest.
Wardell asked Sylvia to go with him to hear Sarah Vaughan sing at the Onyx in mid-Manhattan on New Year’s Eve. They’d never been out together before and Sylvia agreed more out of curiosity about Wardell’s intentions than any interest in hearing Sarah Vaughan. The club was packed tight and from the bar Sylvia caught sight of Anna at one of the tables.
“Did you see Anna over there?” she asked.
“No. But I’ve seen enough of her, so I don’t need to see no more.”
“Is that so?
“I just said it was.”
“Wardell, whatever happened between you and Anna ain’t my business. So don’t make it mine by taking it out on me.”
The set began with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, playing behind Sarah Vaughan. Sylvia found herself foot tapping and head bobbing to the music. And while the close quarters didn’t cramp the style or sound of the musicians, the high speed chase the combo led the audience on still didn’t do as much for Sylvia as almost any band would’ve done on a Saturday night at the Savoy. They left after the first set, passing Danny at the end of the bar, who was in such a trance that he didn’t notice them. It was not quite 10 P.M. Most of the street revelers were making their way toward Times Square. Wardell and Sylvia found a restaurant down the block on 52nd Street.
“I was out a line earlier, talking to you the way I did,” Wardell said, as they ate.
“Damn, Wardell. An apology coming from you is gonna have me fanning myself with a brick!”
“Don’t get too hot and bothered about it, ’cause there ain’t likely to be another one anytime soon.”
“So why did you ask me out?”
“No. I asked you first,” she said.
“I wanted to see how it felt.”
“It feels fine.”
“And how did ‘it’ feel being around me before tonight?”
“You know you’ve always been all right with me.”
“Just all right.”
“Come on, Sylvia. It ain’t like you ever went out a your way to let me know how you felt.”
“Maybe I did but you were too busy to notice.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Is what a fact? That I was interested in you or you were too busy?”
“I’m not busy now.”
“I doubt that.”
“I’ll prove it to you.”
“What are you gonna prove? That you got inspiration or perspiration?”
“I’m not sure you know the difference.”
“I’m not following you, Sylvia.”
“That figures ’cause when you on the dance floor, all you wanna do is lead.”
“Why don’t you show me the way then?”
After arriving at Sylvia’s building, she stood facing Wardell with her back against the door of her apartment. She’d danced with him hundreds of times. And over the years, they’d flirted back and forth like they did at dinner. But Sylvia had never sized him up as a serious romantic possibility before. A wolfish grin high-lighted the gold trim around his two tobacco stained front teeth and traces of saliva at the corners of his mouth. Slivers of kinky hair poked through the slicked down conk and his breath had the smell of sour milk, making her a bit light-headed. It was usually the case that Sylvia opened up to guys who showed some interest in her. She’d never given much thought to liking or disliking someone without knowing or caring what they felt about her. And here was Wardell, not on the dance floor, asking her to dance, but standing at her apartment door, a place she’d never imagined he would be.
And it surprised her that she wasn’t at all excited.
“You gonna ask me in?”
Sylvia heard something in the breath pushing out his words that didn’t sound all that eager.
“I don’t know, Wardell. You’re hell on wheels on the dance floor. But I don’t think you got the wind you’d need to come inside.”
“Maybe I could get up to speed, if you’d show me how to whistle.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have the wind for that.”
“Well, that’s the way it goes,” he said with a shrug. “First your money, then your clothes.”
Sylvia laughed so hard the back of her head hit the door.
“Yeah! I love you too, Sylvia. I’ll see you around” he said, leaning down and kissing her on the cheek.
“No you won’t, if it’s like the place we went tonight.”
“Never say never.”
“I think we just got finished doing that.” Wardell turned to go and Sylvia couldn’t help herself.
“Tell me, Wardell? What did Anna see in you?”
“Like you said before, you don’t need for me to make my business yours.”
One thing Sylvia did make her business was to find as many ways as possible to stay on the dance floor. She joined up with two sisters who were developing an act of daring dance steps that tapped in time with a band or revved up an audience as the opening act before the main attraction took the stage. They called themselves “Six Feet of Thunder” and performed wherever there was a call for hoofers. Sylvia hoped they would get a call to put their heels and toes up against Ella and the Lionel Hampton Band. But when they finally got a few minutes of Hampton’s time and gave him a sketch of their stepping thunder, his wet-mouthed grin spilled out the polite but chilly words that he wasn’t keen on the idea of sharing the spotlight with some upstarts nobody knew who might upstage the band. Despite the unceremonious brush off from Hampton, Sylvia decided against making the rounds with her dancing partners, on a night when they could’ve picked up a nice piece of change, and hustled herself over to the Apollo to hear Ella with the Hampton Band.
Ella was alone in her dressing room, not wanting anyone around her before getting the call to join the band on stage. Her nerves were rubbed raw with the usual worry about whether people would like her. And it didn’t help not seeing the woman in the audience. The only thing that relaxed her was reading the Funnies. Ella’s favorite was “Little Orphan Annie,” which she’d been reading since she was a child. Annie’s ability to get herself in and out of trouble with the just in-the-nick of time help of her well heeled but forever on the go guardian, ‘Daddy’ Warbucks, struck a note that Ella liked the sound of. Having never known her father or gotten along with her stepfather, she searched for a Daddy Warbucks of her own who didn’t have to save the day but just stay put. When Ella was a sensation all over the nation with her recording of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, guys were up in her face, coming out of the side of their mouths with reasons why they were the ‘Daddy’ she was looking for. She even married one of them. But it didn’t last long once Ella realized the only knot he wanted to tie was the one to her purse strings. And when the public turned a deaf ear to Ella’s records, the eyes that these half-stepping talkers had for her went blind.
Ella heard the applause from the audience, signaling the entrance of the Lionel Hampton Band on stage. She’d never sang Hampton’s hit recording, ‘Flying Home’, in public before. No one had ever done a scat version of Illinois Jacquet’s no holds barred saxophone solo that left all competitors gagging on the exhaust of his horn fumes. But what did she have to lose? She’d sung herself to a stand-still; and playing with the Hampton Band was a chance for Ella to see what she could make of herself, having outgrown the voice and the songs that made her popular. With gigs in big bands not as plentiful as they were before the War, Ella spent a lot of time jamming with a group of younger musicians that included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Mary Lou Williams. She marveled at the blinding speed of their playing, daring anyone to keep up. The longer Ella listened to what they were reaching for, the more she could hear her own voice changing in her ears.
She would stand in front of a mirror and sing the melody of “Flying Home.” And without fail, there were certain things she kept doing inside and outside of her mouth. With words like(big boy blue), Ella opened her mouth and pressed her lips against her teeth or pushed them out in a shape to blow smoke rings. With others like (do the dipsy doodle), she pushed her tongue against the roof of her mouth or the back of her front teeth. And in other words such as (love, lady luck and lulu), her tongue played freely, teasing her lips, teeth and gums. The sounds she kept using started with the letters B, D and L. Of course, it was one thing to sing this high speed scat chatter in front of a mirror and quite another to mouth off before an Apollo audience known to rough up anyone, regardless of reputation, who stepped out on stage and didn’t deliver the goods in a timely and tuneful fashion. Which was another reason why she’d made a point of looking out in the audience for the woman who showed up to hear her no matter what.
The Hampton Band was playing, “All My Life” with its extended piano introduction. Ella remembered singing it years before at the Savoy as a tribute to Billie Holiday who’d recorded it first. She could hear the lyrics in her head:
All my life/I’ve been waiting for you/
My wonderful one/I’ve begun living all my life.
Ella was always a little intimidated by Lady Day. Billie was not much older but had come into prominence, a few years before Ella, as a stylist, picking up where Armstrong left off with unforgettable interpretations of lyrics through a mastery of phrasing and intonation. Like Satchmo, Billie wrung the guts out of a song, leaving herself and the audience hung out to dry. All Ella wanted was to sing the song, not turn herself into it. Even after her voice lost its baby fat, there was still a lighter than air quality that was never far away from the bounce of jumping rope. Ella heard all the whispered talk about her not being a singer who could sing the Blues with conviction, and for that reason couldn’t be taken seriously. Ella had to admit she’d never cared much for the Blues. She knew what it was to be down and out but used singing to take her away from all that. Besides, all these people flapping their tongues so much about the Blues probably never had them. And on those occasions when Ella sang about heartbreak, she had no intention of breaking her heart while doing it.
After Ella sang, “All My Life” the band took a break. Ella was sitting at a table and was surprised to see Billie walking toward her in a drop dead, gorgeous, off the shoulder lavender dress. Billie’s head was crowned with a peacock feathered hat and her trademark gardenia pinned to her hair. Seeing Billie made Ella feel her body pushing against the seams of her tight fitting dress. She noticed people staring and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. When Ella sang, nothing but the song got under her skin. But when she wasn’t singing and feeling thin-skinned, like she was at that moment, her mind did a jack knife dive out of her body and watched the people staring, without feeling the sting from their eyes.
“How’re you doin’, Ella girl?” Billie asked, sitting down.
“I’m fine, Billie. I’m so glad you came tonight!”
“I bet you are, with “All My Life” comin’ out your mouth like I’m goin’ out a style.” A smile moved around in Billie’s mouth but the rest of her face was drum tight.
“Did it bother you that I sang that song?” Ella asked. “I meant it as a compliment.”
“I could tell that’s HOW you meant it.”
“That sounds like you don’t believe I did all that well.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Ella. You got a whole octave more than I do to play around with. So you can go a lot farther into the wild blue yonder than me.”
“You know Billie, there’s a rumor going around that when people talk about me, they say: How high is the sky? But when they talk about you, they say: How deep is the ocean?”
Ella watched Billie’s Adam’s apple move up and down, like she’d swallowed something caught in her throat that loosened the stiffness in her neck and face. Billie’s lips then gave way to a show of teeth and laughter that came from deep in her belly. She reached out and placed her hand gently on Ella’s arm.
“That’s a rumor I wish I’d started,” she said.
“Do you think it’s true?”
“Well, there’s that old saying, that you gotta get down before you get up.”
“What does that mean?” Ella asked.
“Just that, I take people to where they live, which is where they have to go before you take them where they ain’t never been. It’s different strokes for different folks, Ella. And I don’t like nobody barking up behind what I’m doing, which is what bothered me when I heard you singing “All My Life.”
“I meant no disrespect, Billie. You’ve been an idol of mine.” Billie pulled her hand away from Ella’s arm.
“Shit! I ain’t your mama. I only got a few years on you. I don’t wanna be nobody’s idol. All I wanna do is sing and get what’s due me. And maybe have a hit record or two like you!”
“Do you hold that against me?”
“Ella! I hope you don’t trouble yourself too much about what I think about you. I’ll get over it. And if I don’t, I’ll get over that too.”
Since they’d had that conversation before the War, the fortune which smiled on Ella shifted to Billie who felt she’d been marking time in bands that refused to see her as, not just a ‘girl’ singer, but a serious musician. However, with the 1939 New York performance at Cafe Society and recording of “Strange Fruit,” Billie declared herself a singer, ready and willing to voice the noise in the hearts of her listeners that made them tremble for more. And Ella, whose voice took the country to delirious heights, like no one since Charles Lindberg’s 1927 transatlantic flight to Paris, was now scuffling to reinvent herself as her popularity plunged into a free fall.
The Hampton band played the last few bars of “All My Life.” Ella wondered if doing her version of Lionel Hampton’s hit record, “Flying Home” would begin to pull her out of this nose dive. She heard the ear-ringing gongs from Lionel Hampton’s vibraharp over the speaker in her dressing room. Up on her feet, Ella made her way down a narrow hallway, getting into the swing of things, as the piano and bass danced arm-in-arm in a jitterbug tempo to “Flying Home.” Recorded only two years before, the stories about the effect of Hampton’s tune on audiences had risen to the level of folklore! In one, the band whipped several couples up into such an overheated state on the dance floor that they had to be rushed to the hospital and treated for sweat burns. In another, a man, who’d gotten a contact high from weed being smoked in the balcony of the Apollo, became so disoriented by what appeared to be smoldering heat billowing up from the orchestra level, that he decided it would be safer to leap from the balcony in an effort to ‘fly’ home.
Recalling these stories didn’t do much for Ella’s confidence, as she hit the steps, leading up to the stage. She was given a hand microphone just off stage at the point in the tune where tenor saxophonist, Illinois Jacquet, launched into his solo. Ella opened her mouth to sing and, as always, was surprised that a voice came out with the same ease as breathing and banished all her worries. Ella’s first flurry of scat sounds jabbed the audience with the power of B,D and L behind them. And they roared their approval even before she was visible on stage. Illinois Jacquet blew his way into the band’s runaway train tempo. Ella sidled up to him, with a chug-a-long slide step, raised a hand to an ear and nodded to the audience how impressed she was. And there she was, dead center, a few rows back: the woman who was never a no show. Ella was ready for Jacquet now! And would get rough if necessary! With every horn honking spurt from Jacquet, she mimed his body talk to perfection: from the jutting chin, the seesaw of shoulders, the swivel in the hips, the buckling knees, holding an imaginary saxophone in outstretched hands and turning it in a circle as though stirring the stew cooked up by the band.
Hampton flashed his eyes and teeth Ella’s way as a signal for her to stir the pot. She spooned her voice in to taste the tune that was making the seats in the audience too hot to sit in. Ella’s devoted fan was the first to bolt from her seat and hit the aisle to dance out the fire from blazing seats. Taking flight above the heat, Ella watched the woman’s every move, mouthing in time to the hot-footed hops, skips and jumps. She matched Jacquet’s spit fired tenor talk tit for tat, her voice hurling a swinging strike into the mitt of everyone’s ears who had no clue what would be thrown at them next. By the time Ella and the Hampton Band brought “Flying Home” in for a landing, everything played after that was a rest stop on the way to getting home for those who could still walk.
Sylvia summoned the courage to go backstage to Ella’s dressing room, something she’d never done before. As the crowd of well-wishers dwindled, Ella caught sight of her and flashed a gapped tooth, girlish grin. Once they were alone, Ella and Sylvia were at a loss for words that didn’t have music around them.
“You’re so good on your feet,” Ella said, finally, “asking you to sit is probably a letdown.”
“Being in your company could never be a letdown, Miss Fitzgerald.”
“Seeing you in the audience always gives me a boost. Have you ever missed a performance of mine in New York?”
“What’s your name?”
“How’d you learn to dance like that?”
“Listening to you and Chick Webb.”
“Well, it seems like we have something in common.”
“That’s not all.”
“You were a few years ahead of me. But we were both in the same orphanage.” The muscles in Ella’s jaws tightened.
“You were in that place?”
“Until I was seventeen.”
“You had no kinfolk who could’ve taken you in?”
“If I did, nobody ever came to claim me.”
“You ever try running away?” Ella asked.
“Anywhere! That’s what I did.”
“But you had a voice to carry you. All I had were my feet.”
“They did all right on “Flying Home” a little while ago.”
“That’s because I got lucky and found a home at the Savoy.” Hearing the mention of the ‘Savoy’ pushed distress out of Ella’s face.
“I felt the same way after Chick asked me join his band.”
“Do you miss it?” Sylvia asked.
“A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about it and wish everything could be like it was before Chick died.”
“Dancing and hearing you sing is how I make that wish come true for me.”
“But my voice isn’t the same as it used to be. And neither is the world.”
“That doesn’t bother me ’cause you’re the only singer who makes me feel like the War hasn’t taken the swing out of things that make folks wanna dance.”
Ella dropped her head and put a hand against her forehead to keep the pleasure of Sylvia’s words from showing on her face.
“Did you like my singing the first time you saw me?”
“Oh yes! Seeing a woman like you who reminded me of myself made hearing you even better!”
Ella lifted her head, took her hand away and met herself in the flesh weighing heavy in Sylvia’s shoulders and bosom.
“That’s nice of you to say, Sylvia. You know, I’m a believer that the only thing better than singing is more singing. I just haven’t figured out how to get my kicks the rest of the time.”
“If you figure that out, I hope you let me know.”
“What about in the meantime, when you’re not dancing or coming to hear me, and you want to get that feeling of how things used to be?”
“I read ‘Little Orphan Annie’.” Ella shook her head, tickled that there was something else they had in common.
“What does Orphan Annie do for you?” she asked.
“She stays the same when everything else around her is changing. What about you, Miss Fitzgerald? When you’re not singing, how do you get back to the way things were before?”
“I try not to stuff my mouth with food,” she said, coughing up a laugh that sounded forced. But a sudden rise in Ella’s eyebrows had her rummaging through a draw of the make-up table until she pulled out something rolled up in a ball.
“Come with me,” she said.
“Where?” Sylvia asked.
“You didn’t need to know that when the band played ‘Flying Home’.”
Sylvia followed Ella down a flight of steps, down a narrow hallway and through a door. The street behind the theater was deserted. Ella removed the rubber band, holding the ball together and it unraveled into a rope. She took hold of both ends and began jumping. The rope slapped the sidewalk under her feet just as they left the ground. Sylvia was amazed that, for someone her size, Ella jumped effortlessly without much exertion at all.
“Come on, if you comin’,” Ella said.
Sylvia hadn’t jumped rope in years. But like dancing or anything you did without thinking, she listened for the silent interval between the scraping sound of the rope against the sidewalk and Ella’s feet hitting the ground. When Sylvia heard it, she leaped inside the silence and the rope; and there was Ella’s gapped tooth, school girl giggle waiting for her. Ella tried to remember one of the rhymes she recited when jumping rope as a child, but they were all scrambled up in her head. But she wasn’t about to let that stop her:
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,
sang at the drop of a hat, hat, hat.
And each note she hit, hit, hit,
sent chills up the back, back, back.
She met a girl, girl, girl,
who danced the shimmy with a twirl, twirl, twirl.
And they jumped and skipped, skipped, skipped,
right out of this world, world, world.