Ella Fitzgerald was homeless when in 1934 she entered a talent quest at New York’s Apollo Theatre, intending to dance. Changing to singing at the last moment, she won. Her reputation as a queen among jazz singers, however, is predicated on her work from her mid-thirties onwards rather than those early years, when, while Billie Holiday was already spearing hearts, Ella was singing such frightful tosh as her co-penned hit A-Tisket, A-Tasket.
Of course this four-disc set celebrating the centenary of Fitzgerald’s birth includes some of the early stuff, although you can safely skip most of Disc 1. Her voice never completely lost the slightly husky girlish quality that helped define it, but it did darken, and her musicality and improvising skills surged into the stratosphere hand-in-hand with better material. You hear the real Ella emerge on 1949’s Black Coffee, and once into the 1950s her control of phrasing and tonal colour were supreme, while her scatting made most others’ attempts sound like the losers on a talent show.