Ella in Japan didn't exist until its release by Verve about a week ago. For years, the Norman Granz project known merely as Ella in Nippon wasn't part of Ella Fitzgerald's vast discography. That's because it was never officially released. All that was known about her recordings in Japan was that there were Scotch tape boxes in the Verve vault and some notes from Granz. According to Stuart Nicholson's biography of the singer, the recording was believed to have been taped sometime in late 1963, and that Verve executives had never even heard the reels. [Photo of Ella Fitzgerald at the Tokyo Airport by Takashi Arihara]
When I was called to write the liner notes last November, all I had to work with were CD transfers of the live recordings and photocopies of the tape boxes with Granz's hand-scrawled notes and a memo written by Granz's assistant to Verve executives in the spring of 1964. That's it.
I knew from the start that a set of notes reflecting my feelings about Ella weren't going to be enough for a recording of this magnitude. Ella in Japan required intensive, painstaking research to resolve the mystery and piece together the story. For the notes to succeed and resonate with readers, I knew I had to figure out when the recordings were made, where they were made and why Granz had aborted the project.
All of which meant I was going to need a hand in Japan. So I reached out to pianist Ayako Shirasaki, a dear friend. She put me in touch with Makoto Gotoh, a Japanese jazz journalist based in Tokyo. I then went off to the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, spending hours combing through microfilm issues of Variety, Billboard and Downbeat for tour mentions.
I also helped manage Makoto's tireless efforts interviewing legendary Japanese musicians and researching ads in Japanese magazines and original concert brochures owned by Japanese musicians. As a result, we were able to piece together the marvelous story of Ella in Japan—how it came to be, where it was recorded, when and why it had remained lost for so long.
Ella's trip to Japan began on January 5, 1964, not in late 1963. She was joined by manager Granz, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Bill Yancey and drummer Gus Johnson. Her schedule was jam packed and included 12 concerts in 13 days in 5 Japanese cities. As I discovered during my research, Japan had just passed a new law that allowed musicians to travel and be paid in sums that they could take out of the country. Both were strong incentives for jazz musicians, and had sparked a touring frenzy in the years that followed. It also created a cottage industry for one-stop Japanese production companies that offered bookings, promotion and recording gear and engineers. [Photo, from left, of Norman Granz, Tommy Flanagan (obscured), Gus Johnson, Roy Eldridge and Bill Yancey arriving at the Tokyo Airport by Takashi Arihara]
Fitzgerald's wall-to-wall schedule was Granz's doing, in part to keep her creeping anxiety and insecurity from taking hold. He also loaded her up with concert dates to keep her from complaining about not working. Fitzgerald was like that. If she wasn't busy, her idle mind began to worry.
In addition to the tour dates in Japan, I also discovered she had additional dates in Hong Kong before flying back to the U.S. to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 2. By the end of Ella's tour of Japan and her return to Tokyo, Granz was ready to record.
Amazingly, Fitzgerald's voice was as powerful and as warm at the end of the grueling concert schedule as when she first arrived. Most concerts featured two performances and upward of two dozen songs each. Through Makoto's help with Japanese brochures and advertisements, we were able to narrow the dates of the performances to two different nights. We also were able to reach out to Japanese jazz legends, who reflected on their performances with Fitzgerald and Eldridge.
Granz's decision to shelve the recording wasn't due to tape flaws or any failing of Fitzgerald's. As Tad Hershorn, author of a soon to be published biography of Granz, noted in an interview, the producer-manager in 1964 was simply inundated with Fitzgerald recordings. He had to pick and choose, and ultimately decided that her European swings in the spring and summer of 1964 had more commercial legs than the Japanese recordings. Granz also forgot to have the engineers capture the names of the Japanese musicians on the recordings, another reason to shelve the tapes. [Photo of Roy Eldridge in Japan by Takashi Arihara]
Ella in Japan by any standard is an amazing two-disc set. For one, you get to hear Fitzgerald and Flanagan recording together for the first time. It's a perfect match, as you can hear on Misty and Fly Me to the Moon. For another, you hear Fitzgerald at her peak, delivering one American Songbook classic after the next with perfect intonation and power. Plus, you get to hear her in front of a Japanese audience that clearly is crazy about her and deeply honored to have her there. [Pictured: song list from Japanese concert brochure; click to enlarge]
Japan in 1964 was just emerging as an economic player following the disaster of World War II. The year was a big one for Japan. The country had just opened a superhighway to the south and later in 1964, the country would unveil its bullet train and host the Summer Olympics. What's more, the economy had improved to the point that phonographs and records were affordable, and large segments of the population gravitated toward American jazz and singers. So the audiences were well versed in Fitzgerald's popular songbook series.
Ella in Japan is comprised of two performances—one at a Tokyo concert hall and another in a hotel before a late-night audience of celebrities who hadn't been able to catch her earlier performance. There are several tracks by just Eldridge and the trio as well as four tracks with Tadao Kitano's Arrow Jazz Orchestra playing Quincy Jones' charts for Count Basie that Granz had brought along. [Photo of Tadao Kitano by Makoto Gotoh]
There's also an irony here. Just as Ella and her quartet were in Japan paving the way for a wave of jazz musicians who would follow, another invasion was shaping up. One week after Fitzgerald's performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles appeared on the same stage and broke all national-audience records.
As Fitzgerald herself noted in a Downbeat interview with Leonard Feather the following year, everything changed after the Beatles' performance that night. For jazz singers, including Fitzgerald, the road began a steep incline and audiences had new expectations. But for a brief few weeks in January 1964, Fitzgerald ruled the world.
JazzWax tracks: S' Wonderful: Ella in Japan (Universal) is a two CD set that has been warmly digitally mastered and is available here.
JazzWax clips: How rich and confident was Ella Fitzgerald's voice in January 1964? Here's a clip of her with Roy Eldridge on Japanese television on January 20 singing Shiny Stockings. Listen for her admonition of Roy to "play pretty." Granz liked both Eldridge and Fitzgerald personally, though the sound of the hot trumpet against the singer's sugary phrasing often created friction between them. For another clip, go here. And Makoto Gotoh just sent me this one here.
Here's Fitzgerald on the Ed Sullivan Show with Sammy Davis Jr. on February 2 just after returning from Japan and a week before the Beatles' historic appearance on the same stage...