- “A Dreadful Bit of Silliness”Feminine Frivolity and Ella Fitzgerald’s Early Critical Reception
In June 1939, as over ten thousand fans mourned outside Baltimore’s Waters AME Church, a twenty-two-year-old Ella Fitzgerald performed an emotional rendition of “My Buddy” to bid farewell to her bandleader, the virtuoso drummer Chick Webb.1 Webb had long fought chronic illness, and he succumbed to spinal tuberculosis while his increasingly successful band was on tour. The emotional Fitzgerald struggled to perform as, by one account, “grief wracked every muscle in the supple body of this brown skinned girl . . . as she steadied her swaying body by holding tight to the microphone.”2 Fitzgerald’s display of emotion speaks to the depth of her connection with Webb, who hired her in 1935 when she was a homeless orphan singing in amateur contests in Harlem. In turn, she gave Webb’s band its first taste of national fame, fronting the band on a string of popular hits.
Fitzgerald would go on to a legendary career that has placed her in the small yet elite group of singers regarded as significant jazz artists, yet her early work holds a tenuous place in her legacy. Gunther Schuller, in his pioneering 1989 study of swing era jazz musicians, dismisses Fitzgerald’s early work, describing her 1930s hits as “puerile songs” and “inane ephemera”:
Webb’s career demonstrates once again the painful truth that outstanding music rarely coincides with great public success. Though highly regarded by fellow musicians and by his loyal fans at the Savoy, Webb did not enjoy national prominence until he had acquired a girl singer by the name of Ella Fitzgerald and, in particular, her recording of a dreadful bit of silliness called A-Tisket, A-Tasket. Fortunately the inane ephemera of that day are now long forgotten, while we can today still enjoy the quite remarkable recordings of the Webb band at its orchestral best.3 [End Page 43]
Schuller’s criticism reflects a broader trend traceable to Fitzgerald’s reception during the 1930s. As in the above passage from Schuller, critics then did not attack Fitzgerald directly; rather, they assailed Webb and his band for its commercial turn and for featuring Fitzgerald’s popular vocal numbers. I term this the “Webb-downturn narrative.” Buried within their attacks is a specific set of discursive moves that pejoratively articulate popularity with femininity, deploying romanticized notions of anticommercialism and authenticity.4 Terms such as “frivolous,” “popular,” “novelty,” and even “vocal” activate gendered tropes that index Fitzgerald and use gender as a means to feminize—and therefore chastise—Webb and his orchestra, even when Fitzgerald is not directly mentioned. Furthermore, by directing such criticism at Webb and other male musicians, this discourse erases Fitzgerald’s subjectivity as a musician, facilitating a strictly homosocial conversation. In this article, I build upon the feminist turn of the new jazz studies—specifically the work of Sherrie Tucker, Tammy Kernodle, and Lara Pellegrinelli—to contend that the Webb-downturn narrative was a raced and gendered reaction to Ella Fitzgerald’s growing presence in the band.5 This reaction to Fitzgerald is a crucial object of jazz historical and historiographic study, in part because the period in which she first received significant critical attention coincides with the emergence of jazz criticism as a coherent discursive formation.6
Musical Microaggression and Jazz Criticism’s Crisis of Masculinity
The raced and gendered tropes in Fitzgerald’s early reception hinge on a particular articulation in the 1930s of anticapitalist ideology to fetishized constructs of black masculinity: misogynist allusions to a black female singer intended to shame a black male bandleader into aesthetic compliance with white male jazz critics’ desires.7 As such, my argument emphasizes two fundamental claims. First, that criticism of Fitzgerald maintains specific links between anticapitalism, authenticity, masculinity, and blackness. Second, that rather than being overtly pejorative toward Fitzgerald herself, criticism during her tenure with Chick Webb’s band [End Page 44] enacts its gendered discursive violence by critiquing her indirectly as a tool to pejoratively feminize Chick Webb, her male bandleader, thus undermining Fitzgerald’s very subjectivity. My approach and emphasis take significant inspiration from bell...