It's been 40 years since, at the age of nine, Sue Giles of Jim Thorpe discovered the music of Ella Fitzgerald. Not only does Giles sing jazz so much in Ella's style that she has performed Ella Fitzgerald tribute concerts around the world, she is writing a musical play about Ella in the period from 1934, when she was first discovered as a singer, to 1939, when her mentor, Chick Webb, died.
"I've got my synopsis, I've got my characters, and I've got my songs," said Giles, "but I need orchestrations and coordination with swing dances. I wrote a list of scenes and musical numbers, but they're not completed yet." She plans to complete the project within a year and, if grant money is available, stage it, initially in Jim Thorpe.
The play covers the period from when a 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald entered an Amateur Night contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater. She had originally intended to dance, but awed by the dancing competition, turned to Plan B - she sang - and won the $25 first prize.
The following year, Ella met drummer and bandleader Chick Webb and he hired her to sing with his orchestra at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. "The years between 1934 and 1939 were instrumental formative years in which Ella developed an acumen, an understanding, and an ear for music by fronting a band," Giles explained. "She never had musical training."
"The project is about how two people, Ella and Chick, overcame personal handicaps to find success and happiness through music. "
Chick Webb died in 1939 at the age of 34 from spinal tuberculosis, a disease he contracted in childhood that left him stunted in height with a hunched back. He turned to the drums as an exercise to "loosen up" his bones, and by the age of 21 he was leading his own band.
At the time, in the Battle of the Bands, Webb's Orchestra routinely bested the top bands of the era including the Benny Goodman and the Count Basie orchestras. Webb drumming style influenced many of the great jazz drummers including Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, and his musical style influenced Art Blakey and Duke Ellington.
Ella's handicap was emotional. Her mother died when she was 14 and she had an abusive relationship with her stepfather. She worked the streets running numbers, which led to a stint in reform school. In her heart, she wanted to be a dancer - until the fateful night at the Apollo theater when the world was introduced to her clear, crisp voice that at once sang of sadness overburdening a smiling heart.
Giles grew up in Jamaica, Queens, New York City. "I was a Jackson 5 addict at the time when my mother changed the radio station and I heard Ella for the first time," she said. "She went into some kind of scat, and I didn't know what scat was at the time. I had never heard a voice sound like an instrument. I called my mom and asked what is this that you are listening to? She said that's Ella Fitzgerald, just sit there and listen. I did - and I loved the sound of her voice."
"Ever since I was really small, I imagined myself singing like that. I listened and listened and learned a lot about her, and became a jazz vocalist myself."
"I wanted to write something about the way it used to be when bands were onstage," she continued. "I researched Ella's life and was stunned to find out what a challenging life she had getting started in her industry. I decided to write about it. I developed this piece that really speaks about Ella and her relationship with the bandleader, Chick Webb."
Giles has written all original music for her production. She has written the lyrics and the melody lines and is looking forward to turn it into a musical composition.
After studying theater at Fredonia State University in Buffalo, Giles put her career on hold to get married and raise children. In the latter 1990s she reconnected with a jazz trumpeter she had known in college, and he encouraged her to record and tour. She has toured Japan, Eastern Europe and parts of South America, often performing an Ella Tribute. She has two CDs: With Love From Sue and The Song Is You.
Sue Giles will be performing in a concert on September 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Shapolsky Art Museum in Jim Thorpe. It will be an Ella tribute backed with a base and a piano. Joining Giles for the performance will be a performance by vocalist Dorie Perdie and keyboardist David Westrip.