Producer Norman Granz recorded these singular American talents for Verve in 1956 (Ella & Louis) and 1957 (Ella & Louis Again) before he landed this absolute stunner of a double album. Recorded just months after Ella & Louis Again, Porgy & Bess also preceded Fitzgerald’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook of 1959 (with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle). It’s a vital addition to Fitzgerald’s Verve songbook recordings, offering an extended look at a particular slice of Gershwin, one that has proven attractive to a great many jazz artists. (Miles Davis and Gil Evans released their own, radically different Porgy and Bess in March 1959.) Ella and Pops convey a deep emotional connection to the story of what Gershwin called his “folk opera,” with Russell Garcia’s evocative and swinging large-ensemble arrangements framing their utterly dissimilar yet highly complementary voices.
The reception history of Gershwin’s ambitious venture (which premiered in 1935, two years before the composer’s death at 38) is extremely complex, as it must be when a celebrated white composer attempts a tableau of African American life in the distinctly African American vernacular of blues and jazz. Black composers including Scott Joplin strove to create a distinctly American “folk opera” medium decades before Gershwin, but received little recognition. And even in the ’30s, Porgy and Bess was criticized for furthering damaging stereotypes. Armstrong, often wrongly accused of being soft on racism and civil rights, had his own painful struggle against accusations of “tomming.” Hearing him in this context inevitably raises these issues. But the music itself, in its sheer rapturous beauty, transcends them.
Armstrong’s trumpet is a thing of jewel-like melodic perfection on the initial chorus of “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” as is Fitzgerald’s delivery of the song’s triumphant lyric “I am glad I’m alive.” Armstrong opens “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” with a heartbreaking out-of-tempo vocal, answered by Fitzgerald’s confident glide into tempo on the words “Porgy, I’s your woman now.” Her nuanced expression on the rhyming phrase “There’s no wrinkle on my brow” is sent down from the heavens. Armstrong gives a master class on swing, the feel he essentially invented back in the ’20s, in his vocal solo feature on “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” And Fitzgerald’s solo ballad “I Wants to Stay Here” (a.k.a. “I Loves You, Porgy”) is simply breathtaking. “My Man’s Gone Now” and the interludes “Buzzard Song” and “Oh, Doctor Jesus” are haunting, even unsettling, uncharacteristically so for the First Lady of Song. These elements and more make Porgy & Bess one of the great vocal albums of the era, and arguably of all time.