Ella Fitzgerald’s Legacy Explored at Palisades Library

By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor
Photos courtesy Fran Morris Rosman

Clutter, or “stuff ” is the bane of our consumer culture. The accumulation from decades of living often finds a home in the commercial storage buildings that have become a feature of our urban landscape.

When archivist Fran Morris Rosman took on the task of helping the legendary singer Ella Fitzgerald dispose of 60 years of stuff, her job—part curator, part negotiator—was far from quotidian, for the disposition of Ella’s life and career memorabilia found exalted vaults, equal to the owner herself.

Palisadian Morris Rosman, the executive director of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, talked about her work with Ella, both as a professional archivist and friend, on Oct. 19 at the Palisades Library.

Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman in New York City, 1948. Photo: Herman Leonard

As luck would have it, Morris Rosman’s focus in library school at the University of Chicago was the performing arts with an emphasis on the Great American Songbook. When it came time for Ella to think about her treasures late in her career, she asked her personal lawyer, Richard Rosman, Fran’s husband, to research what other artists had done. The Gershwins had brought their music to the Library of Congress; Duke Ellington left everything to the Smithsonian; others bequeathed materials to universities.

“Richard said to Ella, ‘You don’t represent a university, you represent America and the world,’” Fran says. “All of her personal musical arrangements that Nelson Riddle, Count Basie and Quincy Jones did for her are in the Library of Congress. Her archival items—the awards, plaques and performance dresses—went to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

“I just sorted,” Morris Rosman says. “It took years. I had three boxes: family, Library of Congress and Smithsonian, and I made the decisions.”

The Carnegie Hall Rose Museum also contains a sizable cache of Ella’s memorabilia. Ella had a long and celebrated career, which began early with success at 21 in 1938. Her recording of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” sold a million copies and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks. Earlier, her first flush with the exhilaration of performing in front of an audience happened by accident when she won the opportunity to compete in Amateur Night at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. She was 17. She had prepared a dance, but was caught flat-footed when she saw her competition: the Edwards Sisters, whom she called “the dancingest sisters around.”

The Postal Service issued a 39-cent Ella Fitzgerald commemorative stamp on Janu- ary 10, 2007, in New York.

In a quick change of plan, Ella decided to sing a Hoagy Carmichael song (“Judy”) that was one of her mother’s favorites. The skeptical audience came around with ecstatic enthusiasm, demanding an encore. Ella found her comfort zone. The otherwise shy and reserved girl glowed under the spotlight.

And the spotlight became her home for the next seven decades in concerts throughout the world, on all the famous radio and televi- sion shows, and in over 200 album recordings. In 1991, she gave her final concert at Carnegie Hall—the 26th time she performed there.

Morris Rosman shared some memorable afternoons with Ella, sitting with the star in the backyard at her home in Beverly Hills.

“We’d chat about kids, what her cook would make for lunch or dinner. Her cookbook collection was major, although she didn’t cook; she’d just put a check by the recipes she wanted Rosalie to make for dinner. One of her favorites was Chicken Marengo, with tomatoes and olives. She loved chicken, which she ate a lot of because of her diabetes.”

Ella’s cookbook collection is now housed at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. Apart from her professional career, Ella was interested in and supported literary and music education for children of all races, cultures and beliefs. She was also political, which was unusual at the time.

“Blacks really didn’t do politics,” Morris Rosman says. “But when asked to, she sang to benefit a candidate. She and Frank Sinatra campaigned like mad for JFK and for Gov. Pat Brown in the ‘60s.”

For someone who suffered the humiliation of being black in the Jim Crow era, Ella was grateful for her longtime manager and friend Norman Granz, who was fierce in his defense of civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color.

Under Norman Granz’s management, Ella began producing her famous songbook series.

“If an auditorium refused to integrate an audience, Norman would either skip it or buy out every seat,” Morris Rosman says.

Performing on radio in the early days, Ella’s color was not discernible, but television was a different story. “In a planned appearance on NBC, she was not permitted to show her trio, who were the best players as far as she was concerned, black or white,” Morris Rosman says.“Norman took out a full-page ad in Variety and blasted them.”

This, the centennial year of Ella’s birth, has required a robust schedule of concert and tributes at theaters around the country, including Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, and Hollywood Bowl. The current exhibition “Ella At 100: Celebrating the Artistry of Ella Fitzgerald,” continues at the Grammy Museum downtown through November 5.

Thursday’s program was hosted by the Friends of the Palisades Library and included video highlights from Ella Fitzgerald’s career.

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