This month’s thoughts are triggered by a visit to the Fondation Maeght, a museum holding a stunning collection of modern art in the South of France. The great Duke Ellington once made a short film there in the early sixties, alongside Joan Miro, the marvellous Spanish artist and sculptor. But Duke also made a number of concert recordings whilst on the Cote d’Azur, including a couple of sessions with Ella Fitzgerald. The box set also includes examples of the band rehearsing numbers, giving a fascinating insight into the way Ellington created his masterpieces. For me, the stand out track is the eleven and a half minutes of ‘The Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues’, recorded in 1966. Ellington always wrote for the musicians in his band, notwithstanding that he often built on riffs or phrases they had originally played in solos, and frequently failed to give them any credit for the tunes! One ought to add that he had a joint composer for most for the last thirty years of his life, the unassuming Billy Strayhorn – very much Ellington’s right hand man in terms of his compositions. Many of his musicians stayed with the band for years – alto sax player Johnny Hodges, trumpet player Cootie Williams, trombonist Lawrence Brown and baritone sax player Harry Carney to name but a few.
But I want to return to the Fondation Maeght. Situated just outside the village of St Paul de Vence (photo 1), the Fondation was conceived and financed by Marguerite and Aime Maeght to present modern and contemporary art in all its forms. Painters and sculptors collaborated closely with Catalan architect Luis Sert in its design and construction. A beautiful building, set in delightful gardens, it contains some of the most important collections of 20th century modern art in Europe, with works by Bonanrd, Bragall, Chagal, Giacometti, Leger and Miro. The Ellington film mentioned above is shot in the Miro labyrinth, perhaps the highlight of the visit, which contains around a dozen sculptures by the artist – a few examples can be seen from the photos below, along with a mural by Chagall. Well worth a visit if you are in the area, but beware – the bus timetable should not be trusted, and the museum is situated up a modestly steep hill!
Thinking again about jazz and Ella Fitzgerald, Ella was one of the trio of singers who dominated jazz singing from the late thirties through to the early eighties – namely Ella, along with Billie Holiday and the Divine One – Sarah Vaughan. All three were outstanding – Sarah with a voice and range to die for and Ella with her musicality and ability to scat like mad were really impressive, but for me it is Billie Holiday who remains my jazz singer of choice. I first heard Ella and Billie in the 1950s when I bought a record of the pair recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival. I marvelled at the Ella side and then turned the disc over to listen to Holiday. Hearing that world weary voice, roughened by alcohol and drug addiction, with Billie nearing the end of her life, was extremely moving. Whatever she sang, whether it was some trite thirties pop song, a great standard, or one of her own songs, she turned it into a personal message. Her early recordings in the middle thirties, alongside the pianist Teddy Wilson and with her lifelong friend tenor sax player Lester Young adding beautiful flourishes, are amongst some of the great jazz classics. Billie turns up on TV clips quite often singing Fine and Mellow, which also features a marvellous solo by Lester (one of his last) –catch it if you can.