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LA jazz icon Barbara Morrison celebrates Ella Fitzgerald's 100th birthday

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Singer Barbara Morrison joins Sean J. O'Connell to consider the life and legacy of Ella Fitzgerald, who would have turned 100 this April 25. The jazz vocal legend spent the last part of her life in L.A.

Ella Fitzgerald, the "First Lady of Song," was shy and a bit "particular" in real life, but brass on stage. She sold 40-million albums and won 15 Grammys. And her fans were legion:

"I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman - a little ahead of her times. And she didn't know it."  -- Ella Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald spent the last part of her life here in Los Angeles. She had a mansion in Beverly Hills and after she died in 1996, was buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery. She would have turned 100 on April 25, and the celebrations have begun... including at the brand new California Jazz and Blues Museum in Leimert Park, which is presided over by LA's own first lady of song, Barbara Morrison. Morrison will also be doing a tribute to Ella at the Catalina Jazz Club this Sunday.

Jazz pianist and Off-Ramp contributor Sean J. O'Connell outside Barbara Morrison's California Jazz and Blues Museum in Leimert Park in South LA.
John Rabe
Jazz pianist and Off-Ramp contributor Sean J. O'Connell outside Barbara Morrison's California Jazz and Blues Museum in Leimert Park in South LA.

Off-Ramp contributor met Morrison at the museum this week to talk about Ella's life and legacy. Make sure to listen to the entire interview in the audio player so you can hear Barbara give scatting advice,  and give us a beautiful a capella version of Make Someone Happy.

Do you remember the first time you heard Ella Fitzgerald?

I do. I was probably about ten years old. My dad had a hi-fi. And he played all the old songs of the great black singers in the day. And we had the first black radio station. It was in Inkster, Michigan. That's all he listened to.

Did she immediately appeal to you?

No, I liked Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown. I liked the more bluesy stuff. But she was artistic, and that part of her I did like. She was more creative. She took leaps and bounds. You know, sitting on the bandstand with Chick Webb when you're a little kid and you got all these professional horn players blowing all kinds of solos. She had a photographic memory. She could remember all that stuff. She could remember what Johnny Hodges was playing in his solo, and she could sing it.

What was peak Ella?

"Ella in Berlin." When she did "Mack the Knife" and forgot the words. I think that really really really made her famous because she carried that whole thing, but she made it all work. I think people appreciated that, because that's how life is. You know? You make it work.

Morrison just christened the California Jazz and Blues Museum at 4317 Degnan Blvd 90008 which has a corner devoted to Ella. "It's called Ella's Pub," Morrison says, because "Dizzy and all the cats would come to town, and instead of hanging out in nightclubs where people would bother them, they'd go to Ella's house and she had a pub in her rec room and they'd all jam all night - Oscar Peterson and everybody."

The museum is next to the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, which has a full schedule this month for Jazz Appreciation Month.

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